Category Archives: The Washington Post

They’re my blue jeans, and I’ll wear them if I want to

What?  I’m supposed to give up wearing jeans because I’m over 52?

A few years ago, I came across a preposterous study conducted by CollectPlus, a UK parcel-delivery service, which asked 2,000 Brits this question:  When should people stop wearing jeans?  Answer:  Age 53.

This answer struck me as absurd.  Even the marketing director at CollectPlus was baffled by the results.  She told the Daily Mail, “Denim is such a universal material and, with so many different styles available, it’s a timeless look that people of all ages can pull off.”

The newspaper didn’t disclose relevant details like the age of the survey’s participants.  Who were these people?  How old were they?  Where did they live?  To make any sense out of this study, we needed details like these. 

What did the participants reveal?  Almost a quarter of them admitted they hadn’t yet found their perfect pair, another 29 percent had given up the quest for that perfect pair, and six percent admitted that they’ve been reduced to tears in the search for it.

Once they found their ideal jeans, however, they’ve held on to them, and 33 percent said they’d wear them practically anywhere, including the theater or a dinner party.

Do these devoted jeans-wearers really expect to give up their beloved jeans when they turn 53?  I doubt it.

Although my own go-to pants are skinny black pants with roomy pockets, my wardrobe also includes some skinny jeans.  I have happy memories of sporting a pair when I visited Yosemite National Park, where they were clearly the best choice.  They protected me from insect bites, spilled food and drink, and potentially hazardous falls onto jagged rocks and other obstacles.  When I hiked alongside spectacular Yosemite Falls, its watery mist hit my clothes, but my jeans’ cotton fabric dried quickly in the mountain air.  And I had pockets galore in which to stash any small items I needed en route. 

In short, they were perfect.  Why would I ever want to abandon them?

I wouldn’t.  But recent events have compelled me to question whether blue jeans are still the great choice they used to be.

The arrival of the pandemic has changed many jeans-wearers’ thinking, especially whether to purchase new ones.  Just look at the statistics.  In July 2020, The Washington Post reported that the pandemic was taking “a real toll” on jeans sales.  Levi’s had posted a 62 percent drop in second-quarter revenue and announced plans to cut 15 percent of its corporate workforce.  Why?  Because people were choosing comfort over the trendy jeans they formerly favored.

Things started to shift back as the pandemic began to loosen its grip.  But reports of sales haven’t been consistent.  Fox Business reported in April 2021 that demand for denim was back. It noted that sales of “the old reliable clothing staple” were on the rise, with consumers buying relaxed-fitting styles rather than the tight-fitting favorites of the past. It added that Levi’s was projecting a potential increase of about 25 percent for the first half of 2021, rebounding from a 13 percent decline.

One month later, in May 2021, a publication called Modern Retail also noted that denim brands like Levi’s were gearing up for the return of sales.  According to this source, skinny jeans continued to claim the largest market share at 34 percent of all jeans sales.  But The Washington Post reported in July 2021 that denim sales were still falling and people were still turning to “less structured” clothing for both work and recreation.  

Two other sources, CNBC and Stylecaster, have issued their own reports. According to CNBC on July 9, Levi’s second-quarter earnings crushed estimates, raising its 2021 forecast.  Stylecaster on July 19 determined that skinny jeans were out, but new/old styles like baggy jeans, low-rise jeans, flares, and even patterned jeans, were in.

Conclusion?  The jeans-scene is pretty foggy.  Trends aren’t completely clear.  Just as the pandemic has surged in some areas and declined in others, the jeans-scene is having its own ups and downs.  Some jeans-wearers will probably return to denim, with possible changes in the styles they choose, while others may abandon buying any new jeans, even though they hold on to the ones they already own.

Here in San Francisco, we treasure the legacy of blue jeans, thanks to Levi Strauss and the jeans empire he and his partner created in 1871.  The Levis Strauss Company is still a big presence in the city, and Levi’s descendants are among the Bay Area’s most prominent philanthropists and civic leaders.  The Levi’s company notably maintains a vast collection of historic jeans in its San Francisco archives.

Right now, San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum is sponsoring an exhibit focused on Levi Strauss and his legacy.  Its website notes that in 1873, “at the end of the California Gold Rush, Levi Strauss & Co., named for a Bavarian Jewish dry goods merchant in San Francisco, obtained a U.S. patent with tailor Jacob Davis on the process of putting metal rivets in men’s denim work pants to increase their durability.  It was the birth of the blue jean.” 

The CJM calls ‘Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,’ “an original exhibition showcasing the life of Levi Strauss, the invention of the blue jean, and their iconic place in the history of American style.”  The exhibit includes over 250 items from Levi’s archives as well as items worn by notables like Albert Einstein.  It celebrates how “the democratic blue jean became a cultural staple and a blank canvas for the rising international youth culture.”

“Youth” is the key word here.  Young people will almost certainly stay loyal to jeans.  Let’s remember that jeans are gender-neutral, racially and ethnically neutral, and still central to the wardrobe of young people, including those in Generation Z.  

Regardless of their age, I predict that jeans-devotees will keep wearing jeans. The result?  Despite the appeal of loose-fitting pants, jeans will probably maintain their place in the world’s collective wardrobe. 

Will I give up my skinny jeans?  Nope.  And I don’t think many other over-50s will abandon theirs.  Together, we’ll defiantly sing (with apologies to Lesley Gore):  “They’re my blue jeans, and I’ll wear them if I want to!” 

{This post previously appeared in a different version on Susan Just Writes. It has been revised for July 2021.]

I Shouda Ran

I just came across some great news for joggers.  Researchers have found that strenuous exercise like jogging does NOT boost the risk of arthritis in one’s knees.  A recent study enlisted nearly 1,200 middle-aged and older people at high risk for knee arthritis.  Result?  After 10 years, those who did strenuous activities like jogging and cycling were no more likely to be diagnosed with arthritis than those who did none. (See the July/August 2020 issue of Nutrition Action, noting a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.)

And according to a writer in The Washington Post, most data show that running actually helps keep knee joints lubricated.  (See the report by John Briley on August 6, 2020.)

Hmmm…

So…maybe I shoulda ran?

What?

I’ll explain.

When my daughters were small, my husband and I often relied on PBS kids’ programming to keep us from going bananas whenever we were home with them for more than a few hours.

I’m still indebted to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for offering wonderfully positive content that expanded our daughters’ minds.

I can still remember many of Fred Rogers’s episodes and his delightful music.  The recent films (e.g., “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) that highlight his music and the many layers of his unfailing kindness are moving tributes to everything he did.  (I obliquely noted Rogers’s important role in our family when I briefly mentioned him in my 2011 novel, Jealous Mistress.)

Similarly, I can’t forget countless “Sesame Street” sketches and songs we watched over and over again. In addition to stalwarts like Kermit the Frog and Big Bird, I loved less-prominent Muppet characters like Don Music, who’d take out his creative frustrations by crashing his head on his piano keyboard.

One “Sesame Street” sketch I vividly recall focused on words than rhymed with “an.”

The setting is a rundown alley in a big city.  Tall buildings loom in the distance.  As the sketch begins, two Muppets garbed as gangsters breathlessly arrive at this spot.  The savvier gangster tells his partner Lefty that “We got the ‘Golden AN’.”

The word “AN” is clearly written in bold upper-case letters on a metal object he’s holding.  Explaining their “plan,” he points to a “tan van” and says, “This is the plan. You see that van? You take the Golden An to the tan van.  You give it to Dan, who will give it to Fran.”  He adds:  “Everything I’m telling you about the plan rhymes with AN.”  He takes off, leaving Lefty alone.

Lefty, who’s pretty much of a dolt, repeats the plan out loud a couple of times while a Muppet cop is watching and listening.  The cop approaches, identifies himself as “Stan…the man,” and tells Lefty he’s going to get “10 days in the can for stealing the Golden An.”

Lefty then chides himself:  “I shoulda ran.”

This carefully crafted sketch was clearly intended to teach little kids about words that rhyme with “an,” although much of it seemed aimed at parents and other adults watching along with the kids.  How many little ones knew the meaning of “the can”?  The bad grammar in the sketch (“I shoulda ran”) was forgivable because kids watching “Sesame Street” didn’t really notice it, and the whole thing was so darned funny.

But what has stayed with me over the decades is the final line:  I shoulda ran.

When I was growing up, I always liked running fast, and I rode my fat-tire Schwinn bike all over my neighborhood.  So I wasn’t indolent.  But as I grew older and entered public high school in Chicago, I encountered the blatantly sexist approach to sports.  Aside from synchronized swimming, my school offered no team sports for girls.  So although I would have loved to be on a track team, that simply wasn’t possible.  Girls couldn’t participate in gymnastics, track, basketball, baseball, tennis, or any of the other teams open to boys our age.

We were also actively discouraged from undertaking any sort of strenuous physical activity.  It was somewhat ironic that I applied to be, and became, the sports editor of my high school yearbook because I was completely shut out of the team sports that I covered in that yearbook .  And I foolishly gave up my coveted spot in the drama group to do it—what a mistake!

I had a somewhat different experience during my single semester in school in Los Angeles, where I spent the first half of 8th grade.  Although sexism was equally pervasive there, girls at least had a greater opportunity to benefit from physical activity.  Because of the beautiful weather, we played volleyball outdoors every day, and I actually learned not to be afraid of the ball!  I was prepared, when we returned to Chicago (reluctantly on my part), to enjoy a similar level of activity during my four years of high school.  But that would not happen.   The girls’ P.E. classes were a joke, a pathetic attempt at encouraging us to move our bodies.  And things didn’t begin to change until 1972, when Title IX was enacted into law.

Over the years, I continued to ride a bike wherever I lived and whenever weather permitted. I took up brisk walking and yoga as well.  And I sometimes thought about running.

Jogging– less intensive running–took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Why didn’t I begin to jog?

There was a bunch of reasons.  First, I was afraid of damaging my knees.  I’ve always loved aerobic dancing, the kind popularized by Jacki Sorensen.  I’d jump along with the music in my favorite Jacki tape, and I began to notice that jumping was possibly beginning to wear away the cartilage in my knee joints because occasional pain resulted. So I kept dancing, but I stopped jumping.  I figured that running would place even further stress on my knees.

And then there was Jim Fixx.

I didn’t know a lot about Jim Fixx.  He became a media celebrity when he published his best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running, in 1977, and his claims about the health benefits of jogging suddenly showed up on the news.  But in 1977, I had a brand-new baby and a toddler, along with a challenging part-time job, and I couldn’t focus on starting something new like jogging.  By the time I was getting ready to launch into it, I heard the news that Fixx had died of a heart attack while jogging.  He was 52.

Fixx’s death shook me up.  I didn’t know at the time that he may have had a genetic predisposition to heart trouble and he had lived a stressful and unhealthy life as an overweight heavy smoker before he began running at age 36.   All that I knew was that this exemplar of health through running had died, while jogging, at age 52.

Chicago weather also stood in my way.  Happily ensconced in an area that allowed our family to ride our bikes along Lake Michigan and quiet residential streets, and where I could take long and pleasant walks with my husband, I was reasonably active outdoors during the six months of the year when good weather prevailed.  But during the harsh winters, confined indoors, I had less success.  I played my Jacki tapes, I tried using a stationary bike (it never fit me comfortably), and I sampled a local gym.  But I didn’t pursue strenuous exercise.

Now, learning about the recent evidence I’ve noted–that, if I’d jogged, my knees might have been OK after all–I regret that choice.  My current climate allows me to be outside almost every day, and I take advantage of it by briskly walking about 30 minutes daily, much of it uphill.  So that’s my workout now, and it’s a pretty good one.

But I probably would have loved running all those years.

It’s a bit late to start now, but I can’t help thinking:  I shoulda ran.

Declare Your Independence! Those High Heels Are Killers

Happy 4th of July!  In honor of the holiday, I’m reviving a blog post that I published three years ago.

Because I believe so strongly in communicating this message, I may turn this blog post into an annual tradition.

If you’ve read it before, thanks for re-reading it.  I’ve made a few changes to acknowledge some current trends.

I’ve long maintained that high heels are killers.  I never used that term literally, of course.  I merely viewed high-heeled shoes as distinctly uncomfortable and an outrageous concession to the dictates of fashion that can lead to both pain and permanent damage to a woman’s body.

A few years ago, however, high heels proved to be actual killers.  The Associated Press reported that two women, ages 18 and 23, were killed in Riverside, California, as they struggled in high heels to get away from a train.  With their car stuck on the tracks, the women attempted to flee as the train approached.  A police spokesman later said, “It appears they were in high heels and [had] a hard time getting away quickly.”

Like those young women, I was sucked into wearing high heels when I was a teenager.  It was de rigueur for girls at my high school to seek out the trendy shoe stores on State Street in downtown Chicago and purchase whichever high-heeled offerings our wallets could afford.  On my first visit, I was entranced by the three-inch-heeled numbers that pushed my toes into a too-narrow space and revealed them in what I thought was a highly provocative position.  If feet can have cleavage, those shoes gave me cleavage.

Never mind that my feet were encased in a vise-like grip.  Never mind that I walked unsteadily on the stilts beneath my soles.  And never mind that my whole body was pitched forward in an ungainly manner as I propelled myself around the store.  I liked the way my legs looked in those shoes, and I had just enough baby-sitting money to pay for them.  Now I could stride with pride to the next Sweet Sixteen luncheon on my calendar, wearing footwear like all the other girls’.

That luncheon revealed what an unwise purchase I’d made. When the event ended, I found myself stranded in a distant location with no ride home, and I started walking to the nearest bus stop. After a few steps, it was clear that my shoes were killers. I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and the pain became so great that I removed my shoes and walked in stocking feet the rest of the way.

After that painful lesson, I abandoned three-inch high-heeled shoes and resorted to wearing lower ones. Sure, I couldn’t flaunt my shapely legs quite as effectively, but I managed to secure male attention nevertheless.

Instead of conforming to the modern-day equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, I successfully and happily fended off the back pain, foot pain, bunions, and corns that my fashion-victim sisters suffer in spades.

The trend toward higher and higher heels has been disturbing.  I’m baffled by women, especially young women, who buy into the mindset that they must follow the dictates of fashion and the need to look “sexy” by wearing extremely high heels.

When I watch TV, I’ve seen too many women wearing stilettos that forced them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago. When late-night TV shows still featured guests walking to greet the host, I couldn’t help noticing the women who were otherwise smartly attired and often very smart (in the other sense of the word), yet wore ridiculously high heels that forced them to have that same ungainly walk. Some appeared on the verge of toppling over. And at the most recent Oscar awards telecast, many women tottered to the stage in ultra-high heels, often accompanied by escorts who kindly held onto them to prevent their embarrassing descent into the orchestra pit.

The women who, like me, have adopted lower-heeled shoes strike me as much smarter and much less likely to fall on their attractive (and sometimes surgically-enhanced) faces.

Here’s another example.  When I sat on the stage of Zellerbach Hall at the Berkeley commencement for math students a few years ago, I was astonished that many if not most of the women graduates hobbled across the stage to receive their diplomas in three- and four-inch-high sandals.  I was terrified that these super-smart math students would trip and fall before they could grasp the document their mighty brain-power had earned.  (Fortunately, none of them tripped, but I could nevertheless imagine the foot-pain that accompanied the joy of receiving their degrees.)

Foot-care professionals soundly support my view.   According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, a heel that’s more than 2 or 3 inches makes comfort just about impossible.  Why?  Because a 3-inch heel creates seven times more stress than a 1-inch heel.

The San Francisco Chronicle asked a local podiatrist and foot and ankle surgeon for his opinion.  He explained that after 1.5 inches, the pressure increases on the ball of the foot and can lead to “ball-of-the-foot numbness.”  (Yikes!)  He did not endorse 3-inch heels and pointed out that celebrities wear them for only a short time (for example, on the red carpet), not all day.  To ensure a truly comfortable shoe, he added, don’t go above a 1.5 inch heel.  If you insist on wearing higher heels, limit how much time you spend in them.

Some encouraging changes are clearly afoot.  Catalogs from Nordstrom, one of America’s major shoe-sellers, have already featured lower-heeled styles along with higher-heeled numbers.  Because Nordstrom is a bellwether in the fashion world, its choices can influence shoe-seekers.  Or is Nordstrom reflecting what its shoppers have already told the stores’ buyers?  The almighty power of the purse—how shoppers are choosing to spend their money–-has probably played a big role here.

Now, the pandemic is unquestionably playing an even bigger role.

The Washington Post covered the changing trends in June.  It noted, “Sales of high heels, loafers and other dress shoes have been tumbling for years, and analysts say the pandemic has turbocharged their demise.”  Sales of men’s and women’s dress shoes plunged 70 percent in March and April.

“High heels are way down,” said Beth Goldstein, a footwear analyst. “The question now is whether they’ll ever rebound. Of course, some women out there are dying to put their heels back on. But I think most of them are saying, ‘I’m never going to wear those shoes again.’ ”

Lately, she said, it’s all about comfort.  Shoe manufacturers are busy creating designs with wider and thicker heels, padded insoles and other athletic touches to add stability and comfort.  Sales of stiletto-shaped heels, she added, dropped 11 percent last year.

“Retailers are recognizing that they’re going to have to rethink what they know,” Goldstein said. “There is going to be a long-term shift.”

Beyond the issue of comfort, let’s remember that high heels present a far more urgent problem.  As the deaths in Riverside demonstrate, women who wear high heels can be putting their lives at risk.  When women need to flee a dangerous situation, it’s pretty obvious that high heels can handicap their ability to escape.

How many other needless deaths have resulted from hobbled feet?

As we celebrate the Fourth of July, I urge the women of America to declare their independence from high-heeled shoes.

If you’re currently wearing painful footwear, bravely throw those shoes away, or at the very least, toss them into the back of your closet.  Shod yourself instead in shoes that allow you to walk—and if need be, run—in comfort.

Your wretched appendages, yearning to be free, will be forever grateful.

[Earlier versions of this commentary appeared on Susan Just Writes and the San Francisco Chronicle.]

“Who was that masked man?”

If you ever watched “The Lone Ranger,” a TV series that appeared from 1949 to 1957, you probably remember the question that ended every episode:  “Who was that masked man?”  The Lone Ranger, a Texas Ranger turned vigilante who became a pop-culture hero fighting for truth and justice, wore a mask to obscure his identity.

The question seems more appropriate today than ever before.  With most of us donning masks—or another sort of face-covering—it’s impossible to see the entire face of anyone you encounter in the outside world.  We simply have to trust that we won’t run into any evildoers lurking near us wherever we go.  So far I haven’t felt that I needed someone like the L.R. to come to my rescue.

There’s another concern, however.  When I take my daily neighborhood stroll, I find it troubling that, although most of us are now required to wear masks in public, many people I encounter are walking or jogging sans mask.  The most annoying are the joggers, who don’t seem to care that they are exhaling a whole load of droplets every time they breathe, and heck, their droplets just might be contaminated with Covid-19.

In addition to wearing a mask, walkers need to keep at least 6 feet away from each other, and according to an expert quoted in The Washington Post a few days ago, joggers need to run at least 10 feet away from everyone else.  Although some of the people I encounter try to observe those distances, many don’t.

As I walk, I often mutter into my mask (usually a colorful scarf covering my nose and mouth), trying to restrain my irritation with those violating the current guidelines. [Please see my blog post, “Join the ranks of the scarf-wearers,” at https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/join-the-ranks-of-the-scarf-wearers/.%5D

My mask has actually turned out to be a great way to muffle what I’m not merely thinking but actually saying.  (Sotto voce, of course.)  A favorite:  “Jerk.”  Or worse.  And lately I’ve been borrowing the title of a hilarious children’s book, “The Stupids Die.”

When we were raising our two daughters in the 1980s, we enthusiastically read countless books to them.  Among our favorites were those written and illustrated by James Marshall.  Marshall is probably best known for his delightful series featuring two anthropomorphized hippos called George and Martha.  The series includes five books published between 1972 and 1988.

George and Martha were “best friends,” and one of the things we loved about them was that they were non-gender-specific friends.  So although Martha would sometimes be drawn wearing a hair bow or a colorful skirt, and George sometimes sported a casual fedora, both Martha and George liked to do the same things and go to the same places.  And no matter what transpired, they were always “best friends.”

But James Marshall didn’t confine his talents to the George and Martha series.  As an illustrator, he collaborated with the writer Harry Allard, who wrote a series of four books featuring a family called The Stupids.  Marshall’s colorful illustrations for these books, published between 1977 and 1989, are knee-slappingly hilarious.

The Stupids are colossally stupid, so much so that in “The Stupids Die,” the Stupids leap to the conclusion that they’re dead when a power outage makes their lights go out, turning their home totally dark.  The truth is revealed at the end, and the reader is left laughing at how astoundingly foolish The Stupids are.

The series had its critics, who griped that the stories promoted low self-esteem and negative behavior.  But most kids loved the stories, and copies are still selling to grown-up fans on Amazon.com.

As I witness the choice made by some walkers and joggers on my route–the choice not to keep the prescribed distance or to wear a mask to protect themselves and others from the potentially virus-saturated droplets in their exhalations– “The Stupids Die” keeps reverberating in my head.

Wearing my own mask has the unexpected benefit of allowing me to say whatever I want as I pass these non-mask-wearing and non-distance-keeping people, who are endangering their own lives as well as mine. So in addition to muttering “Jerk” and other expletives, I frequently mutter “The Stupids Die.”

If anyone should hear me, I can promptly explain that I’m simply recalling the title of a favorite children’s book.  And if they want to interpret those words as words that apply to them, I hope they will do just that.

I’m well aware that most victims of Covid-19 are very smart people who contracted the disease through no fault of their own.  I do NOT include them among “the Stupids.”  And I strongly condemn the violent assaults that have recently erupted, where mask-wearers have attacked those who weren’t wearing masks.

But I do judge harshly those in my own surroundings who don’t appear to care about others, and I declare the following:

To everyone walking and jogging, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine that surround us this May, please remember to wear a mask.  Please remember to stay the correct distance away from me.

And for your own sake, please remember that “The Stupids Die.”

 

 

 

 

Waiting for a Vaccine

 

While the world, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, turns to science and medicine to find a vaccine that would make us all safe, I can’t help remembering a long-ago time in my life when the world faced another deadly disease.

And I vividly remember how a vaccine, the result of years of dedicated research, led to the triumphant defeat of that disease.

Covid-19 poses a special threat.  The U.S. has just surpassed one million cases, according to The Washington Post.  It’s a new and unknown virus that has baffled medical researchers, and those of us who wake up every day feeling OK are left wondering whether we’re asymptomatic carriers of the virus or just damned lucky.  So far.

Testing of the entire population is essential, as is the development of effective therapies for treating those who are diagnosed as positive.  But our ultimate salvation will come with the development of a vaccine.

Overwhelming everything else right now is an oppressive feeling of fear.  Fear that the slightest contact with the virus can cause a horrible assault on one’s body, possibly leading to a gruesome hospitalization and, finally, death.

I recognize that feeling of fear.  Anyone growing up in America in the late 1940s and the early 1950s will recognize it.

Those of us who were conscious at that time remember the scourge of polio.  Some may have memories of that time that are as vivid as mine.  Others may have suppressed the ugly memories associated with the fear of polio.  And although the fear caused by Covid-19 today is infinitely worse, the fear of polio was in many ways the same.

People were aware of the disease called polio—the common name for poliomyelitis (originally and mistakenly called infantile paralysis; it didn’t affect only the young) — for a long time.  It was noted as early as the 19th century, and in 1908 two scientists identified a virus as its cause.

Before polio vaccines were available,  outbreaks in the U.S. caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis every year.  In the late 1940s, these outbreaks increased in frequency and size, resulting in an average of 35,000 victims of paralysis each year.  Parents feared letting their children go outside, especially in the summer, when the virus seemed to peak, and some public health official imposed quarantines.

Polio appeared in several different forms.  About 95% of the cases were asymptomatic.  Others were mild, causing ordinary virus-like symptoms, and most people recovered quickly.  But some victims contracted a more serious form of the disease.  They suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death.  Many survivors were disabled for life, and they became a visible reminder of the enormous toll polio took on children’s lives.

The polio virus is highly infectious, spreading through contact between people, generally entering the body through the mouth.  A cure for it has never been found, so the ultimate goal has always been prevention via a vaccine.  Thanks to the vaccine first developed in the 1950s by Jonas Salk, polio was eventually eliminated from the Western Hemisphere in 1994.  It continues to circulate in a few countries elsewhere in the world, where vaccination programs aim to eliminate these last pockets because there is always a risk that it can spread within non-vaccinated populations.

[When HIV-AIDS first appeared, it created the same sort of fear.  It was a new disease with an unknown cause, and this led to widespread fear.  There is still no vaccine, although research efforts continue.  Notably, Jonas Salk spent the last years of his life searching for a vaccine against AIDS.  Until there is a vaccine, the development of life-saving drugs has lessened fear of the disease.]

When I was growing up, polio was an omnipresent and very scary disease.  Every year, children and their parents received warnings from public health officials, especially in the summer.  We were warned against going to communal swimming pools and large gatherings where the virus might spread.

We saw images on TV of polio’s unlucky victims.  Even though TV images back then were in black and white, they were clear enough to show kids my age who were suddenly trapped inside a huge piece of machinery called an iron lung, watched over by nurses who attended to their basic needs while they struggled to breathe.  Then there were the images of young people valiantly trying to walk on crutches, as well as those confined to wheelchairs.  They were the lucky ones.  Because we knew that the disease also killed a lot of people.

So every summer, I worried about catching polio, and when colder weather returned each fall, I was grateful that I had survived one more summer without catching it.

I was too young to remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I later learned that he had contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39.  He had a serious case, causing paralysis, and although he was open about having had polio, he has been criticized for concealing how extensive his disability really was.

Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and it soon became a charity called the March of Dimes.  The catch phrase “march of dimes” was coined by popular actor/comedian/singer Eddie Cantor, who worked vigorously on the campaign to raise funds for research.  Using a name like that of the well-known newsreel The March of Time, Cantor announced on a 1938 radio program that the March of Dimes would begin collecting dimes to support research into polio, as well as to help victims who survived the disease. (Because polio ultimately succumbed to a vaccine, the March of Dimes has evolved into an ongoing charity focused on the health of mothers and babies, specifically on preventing birth defects.)

Yes, polio was defeated by a vaccine.  For years, the March of Dimes funded medical research aimed at a vaccine, and one of the recipients of its funds was a young physician at the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine named Jonas Salk.

Salk became a superhero when he announced on April 12, 1955, that his research had led to the creation of a vaccine that was “safe, effective, and potent.”

Salk had worked toward the goal of a vaccine for years, especially after 1947, when he was recruited to be the director of the school’s Virus Research Laboratory.  There he created a vaccine composed of “killed” polio virus.  He first administered it to volunteers who included himself, his wife, and their children.  All of them developed anti-polio antibodies and experienced no negative reactions to the vaccine. Then, in 1954, a massive field trial tested the vaccine on over one million children between six and nine, allowing Salk to make his astonishing announcement in 1955.

I remember the day I first learned about the Salk vaccine. It was earthshaking.  It changed everything.  It represented a tremendous scientific breakthrough that, over time, relieved the anxiety of millions of American children and their parents.

But it wasn’t immediately available.  It took about two years before enough of the vaccine was produced to make it available to everyone, and the number of polio cases during those two years averaged 45,000.

Because we couldn’t get injections of the vaccine for some time, the fear of polio lingered.  Before I could get my own injection, I recall sitting in my school gym one day, looking around at the other students, and wondering whether I might still catch it from one of them.

My reaction was eerily like John Kerry’s demand when he testified before a Senate committee in 1971:  “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?”  I remember thinking how terrible it would be to be one of the last kids to catch polio when the vaccine already existed but I hadn’t been able to get it yet.

I eventually got my injection, and life changed irreversibly.  Never again would I live in fear of contracting polio.

In 1962, the Salk vaccine was replaced by Dr. Albert Sabin’s live attenuated vaccine, an orally-administered vaccine that was both easier to give and less expensive, and I soon received that as well.

(By the way, neither Salk nor Sabin patented their discoveries or earned any profits from them, preferring that their vaccines be made widely available at a low price rather than exploited by commercial entities like pharmaceutical companies.)

Today, confronting the Covid-19 virus, no thinking person can avoid the fear of becoming one of its victims.  But as scientists and medical doctors continue to search for a vaccine, I’m reminded of how long those of us who were children in the 1950s waited for that to happen.

Because the whole world is confronting this new and terrible virus, valiant efforts, much like those of Jonas Salk, are aimed at creating a “safe, effective and potent” vaccine.  And there are encouraging signs coming from different directions.  Scientists at Oxford University in the UK were already working on a vaccine to defeat another form of the coronavirus when Covid-19 reared its ugly head, and they have pivoted toward developing a possible vaccine to defeat the new threat.  Clinical trials may take place within the next few months.

Similarly, some Harvard researchers haven’t taken a day off since early January, working hard to develop a vaccine.  Along with the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, this group plans to launch clinical trials in the fall.

While the world waits, let’s hope that a life-saving vaccine will appear much more quickly than the polio vaccine did.  With today’s improved technology, and a by-now long and successful history of creating vaccines to kill deadly viruses, maybe we can reach that goal very soon.  Only then, when we are all able to receive the benefits of an effective vaccine, will our lives truly begin to return to anything resembling “normal.”