The other day I was watching the umpteenth news item about how the flu bug is everywhere. Midway through the story I think I may have missed a crucial piece of information because the dry cough I’ve so far endured for every single day of 2013 decided to go into its impersonation of a garbage disposal and drowned out my TV.
I’m not sure what triggered the cough. Maybe it was brought on by multi-tasking. There I was watching the TV at low volume, half listening to Chopin on an iPod and admiring a print of a Modigliani painting on our office wall. The next thing I knew I was reaching for a copy of Kafka to re-read Metamorphosis, you know the story where Gregor Samsa awakens to find he’s been turned into a large cockroach. Who knows why? Maybe a synapse fired allowing me to associate flu bug with literary bug.
Wait a minute! Chopin, Modigliani and Kafka all died of some form of tuberculosis. Yaargh! Cough! It’s everywhere, truly everywhere! This association gave me the creeps, sort of like the time I was boarding a plane and noticed the passenger ahead of me had Amelia Earhart luggage.
But what exactly is this bug that’s everywhere? It’s taking many shapes, both medical and Kafkan. We all seem to be getting sick, flu shot or no flu shot. Luckily what my wife and I have suffered through is really not flu — at least not so far — but just some disease reminiscent of what thwarted the invading Martians in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds — the common cold.
First, Paula got this bug; low-grade fever, sore throat, coughs, sneezes, achy limbs. After five days of this, when she saw I was not feeling what she was feeling, she pronounced herself ‘not contagious.’ But on day six, I woke up with all those symptoms. So much for self-diagnosis. Time to see the doctor. Time for the Z-pack — five pills of glorious Azithromycin.
The very fact that I’m taking antibiotics has a miraculous effect that’s totally psychological. I tell myself I’m on the road to health. By day five, I’ll be free of sickness. Then that day comes. I feel better, but the cough remains.
Welcome then to the next phase of illness, anxiety over that which lingers. Time for an over-the-counter solution. Time to drive myself to the pharmacy and to distraction.
Walk down any medication aisle in a supermarket or drugstore today and you have to think you’re not in a pharmacy so much as a pharmory, stockpiled with the latest weapons designed to attack all the latest gripes and afflictions.
Look at those cough remedies! Even when you recognize a brand name the company offers a slew of variations on a theme, products with vague permutations of targets and panaceas. Among all the antihistamines, decongestants, suppressants and expectorants, there are adjectives formulated to lure you: Scratchy, Itchy, Runny, Stuffy, Achy, Dopey and Doc. And then there are the warnings. May cause drowsiness. May cause dizziness. May cause daffiness. Just buy something, I tell myself. They’re probably all the same.
Next I have to focus on an anti-Z-pack. Now that I’ve consumed antibiotics, my next purchase, of course, has to be probiotics. I’ve now flushed indiscriminately all bacteria out of my system, so now it’s time to welcome back the good bacteria.
As I leave the store with my bottles of hope, my mind starts flittering through other impossible cautions: stay away from crowds, avoid hugs and germs of endearment, stop sharing space with children, stay out of airports and airplanes. Beware of inspirations for haiku.
Over the counter
And through all the woulds and shoulds
We’re processed and cured
Winter does this to people. Makes us sick. Makes us crazy trying to get better. It’s hard to stay healthy when you live on this planet. As Gilda Radner used to say, “It’s always something.”
Pop pills, drink tea, wear long johns, wait for spring. As I dance around the decision process, it feels like I’m engaging in some kind of neurological vaudeville. After fumbling my way to curing myself, I am looking forward to feeling more hale and hearty and less Laurel and Hardy.
So now I take a deep breath and recall the wise words from my late father-in-law, the good doctor. “You can take over-the-counter medicine and your cold will be gone in seven days, or you can do nothing and it will disappear in a week.”
He also suggested that whenever you feel the urge to exercise, just stay right where you are until the urge passes. This advice from a man who gave up smoking at 70, ate the fat off his steak, which he had smothered in butter, lived happily at a cholesterol level of 300 and passed from this mortal coil at 90 — of meningitis.
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.