Friday, September 15, 2006

cold comfort

Like many other things, having a cold isn't the straightforward business it used to be.

It used to be, the day that your sore throat became an unambiguous harbinger of the snot fest to come, you'd hunker down on the couch, pull a blanket up to your chin, watch the whole day's line-up of game shows and sit-coms (or soap operas, if you expected a lengthy recovery or required more glamour than Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert could deliver), and generally feel sorry for yourself.

It's no accident that Jeopardy contestants were on for at most 5 consecutive days before they became eligible for a return visit in the Tournament of Champions: 5 days was about the longest you could malinger without significant challenge from institutions like schools and employers. 5 days on the couch, drinking Lipton's with plenty of sugar and lemon. Watching the $10,000 Pyramid. F Troop re-runs. Petticoat Junction re-runs. Hogan's Heroes re-runs. Arnold Ziffle and Richard Dawson could bully your immune system into ejecting any run-of-the-mill viruses. Forget about zinc. Forget about vitamin C. Daytime TV is the cure for the common cold.

"Please excuse Catherine's absence. She was ill."

I spent so much time on the couch in junior high school that there was some question as to whether I could take the giant step forward from the miseries of the 7th grade to the even more profound miseries of the 8th grade. But I was, in fact, ill. Quite often. Afflicted with every malady of adolescence. Indolence. Insolence. Zits. Lassitude. Ennui. Fear. Fatness. Frizzies.

Please excuse Catherine's absence. She was ill.

The vagueness of the explanation in my note from home pleased me. Plus my mother wrote it in a script that I can only characterize as Authoritative Adult; it in no way prefigured the friendly zaniness of Comic Sans. The letters were narrow, confident, and at an even slant.

Please excuse Catherine's illness. She was absent.

I had a cold last week. It was no different from not having a cold, except that I felt horrible doing what I normally do. I sat in front of my laptop, periodically touching my forehead with the back of my hand to monitor incipient feverishness. As usual, in spite of the fiery feeling that I perceived quite clearly with the back of my hand, I registered no extra degrees on that most traitorous of measuring devices, the thermometer. It informed me I wasn't nearly as sick as I felt.

No. Really. I felt like shit. But I work at home, which makes home-based malingering almost impossible, because home is where the work is. There's no percentage in having a cold at all.

I knew I was doomed to get this thing too. I was walking at a good clip west on 42nd Street in Manhattan, wondering if fanny packs and t-shirts with faux gemstones would ever go out of style in the Midwest, when I heard a loud AH-CHOO right behind me. The sneezer was close enough that the woman in front of me turned around, looked right at me, and said, "Bless you." I said, "Thanks, but I'm not the one who sneezed."

Right then, I knew I'd catch the anonymous sneezer's cold. I felt like rushing into that horrible Duane Reade on the corner of 42nd and 8th (as if there weren't one on 7th or 41rst) and futilely scanning the shelves for a cold prevention elixir. Anything to stave off the inevitability of this virus.

My initial impulse when I feel a cold coming on is to revert to my strong base of experience from childhood. I could -- in a lightning fit of inspiration -- fill in the sick code on the HRWEB time sheet web page, set my laptop up to look for extraterrestrial life, and curl up on the couch with the cat and the Radio Shack universal TV remote.

The remote, I realized after that initial glow of inspiration subsided, hasn't worked in almost a year. You have to walk up to the TV to change the channel and you have to do it using the channel up and channel down buttons.

Bassmasters > 700 club > This Old House > Anna Nicole Smith > MTV10 > The Cheesy Jewelry Network > Emeril Live > The Biggest Storms of the Last 10 Years > Animal Planet > Senseless Litigation Channel > The Tractor Show > The Model Railroad Network ...

See what I mean?

Worse yet that old staple, game shows, are relegated to the Game Show Network. They don't have the same feeling of cultural centrality that game shows did pre-cable. They have a weird niche-y feeling to them, as if you belong to a small unimportant demographic, one that doesn't even rate support from Girls Gone Wild, one that says the Jeopardy questions out loud. How many Metamucil ads can you watch before you just feel old? What's worse than feeling old, unimportant, and horribly ill?

Naturally my impulse is to medicate this condition: it should be possible to go down to Walgreen's and buy a single product that makes you feel young, important, and healthy.

Haven't I needed to medicate myself for this condition before? I should think so. I should check the medicine cabinet first.

When I climb on the tub's edge -- careful not to fall on top of the African Mask plants and orchids that live in the bathtub -- and peer into the depths of my bathroom cabinet, I am reminded of past medication failures. Alka Seltzer Plus Nighttime (which causes me to awaken at 2am with my heart racing and my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth); Alka Seltzer Plus Daytime (which makes my scalp prickle and my skin crawl); Sudafed (which makes the Walgreen's clerk think I'm running a meth lab at home); Waltussin (which causes ketamine-like auditory hallucinations if you treat the whole bottle like a robo-tini, but does diddly for your cold symptoms); Wal-itin (which seems to be a straightforward placebo that you dissolve under your tongue so that the placebo effect is achieved fast, fast, fast); and Pepto Bismol (just in case you choose your medicine strictly on the basis of color).

Ick. Probably a swig of Neutrogena shampoo (which causes a severe and ostracizing case of dandruff) would have a more constructive effect. At least the hair that has sprouted on my tongue would be shiny and manageable.

No game shows worth watching. No medication worth swilling. I can only sit and work like I usually do.

But wait! The cat will cheer me up. Aren't companion animals supposed to cure what ails you? Lower your blood pressure. Clear up that case of psoriasis. Make wounds heal more quickly. Sharpen your mental acuity. Yep. Nothing like a companion animal when you're sick.

Lumpy decided to cheer me up by accelerating his catch-and-release program. His catch-and-release program ensures that our house is stocked with half-dead, grimly wounded wildlife. That way, if he's bored -- or you're bored, or the weather's not so nice, or it's late at night -- he can hunt down prey in the comfort of the bedroom, kitchen, or living room. Once I looked up to see a little mousie treed in Harvey the ficus's upper branches. Another time, a rodent expired behind the refrigerator, causing an increasingly suspicious odor of decay. We ignored it until it became undeniable (and the mouse had liquefied).

This time, since I felt so lousy, The Lump felt he should pull out all the stops.

What creature is so identified with urban settings that it makes you feel like it represents all the city has to give? What creature is so beloved that patents have been issued for special devices to keep it away from your house? What creature unites the mentally ill, the marginal, the homeless, the frothing angry, and the little old lady with her bag of two-week-old bread crumbs? What creature can rain from the sky at opportune moments? The humble pigeon: that's what! Who doesn't love to kick a pigeon?

Lumpy brought the live bird over to my chair and dropped it at my feet (presumably so I could kick it), leaving a small trail of blood droplets all the way from his cat door, up the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the dining room, where I was sitting at my laptop, much as I am right now. Much as I always am, in fact.

"Here," he said, dumping the struggling bird at my feet. "This'll cheer you up."

The bird caromed wildly off the ceilings, floors, walls, chairs, tables, couches -- bouncing everywhere except through the screenless windows I'd opened in a hurry once I stopped screaming at the cat. Every horizontal surface, every vertical surface, formed a backboard for the startled bird. It left behind a small smudge of blood every time it hit something. A flurry of feathers wafted in the air behind it.

My throat hurt. A frightened pigeon is very possibly less helpful for a full and speedy recovery than even, say, Waltussin, Wal-o-fed, or bright pink Pepto-Bismol.

If an animal is going to be a successful participant in Lumpy's catch-and-release program, it has to be lively, capable of scuffling in the middle of the night.

This pigeon was plenty darned lively. I grabbed the cat around his substantial midsection, shuttled him downstairs, and closed us both in the garage.

"You and I are going to wait here," I told him darkly, "until your little feathered friend can find his way out into the wild blue yonder. Okay?"

He yowled at the door in fervent disagreement.

I felt my forehead again. Surely now I was feverish, what with all gusts of cold air and pigeon feathers I'd been exposed to. Heckuva way to have a cold. The pigs and I should be watching Match Game '77. The cat should be settled in my lap on top of the fleecy blanket and I should have a steaming mug of ginger tea to drink. The windows should be shut against drafts and stray yellowjackets.

There should be an upside to having a goddamned cold. You can't expect sympathy (and, actually you don't deserve sympathy) when you have a cold. But you might as well be comfortable and pleasantly buffered by TV, a nice warm cat, and some consciousness-numbing cold medicine.

Instead Lumpy and I hung around in the garage, both wondering -- for our own various reasons -- what had happened to the dumb bird.

As it turned out, the pigeon was playing dead under the TV, as I myself often do. So using nothing but a bath towel and a pair of rubber gloves -- and how many stunts can be performed with nothing but a bath towel and a pair of rubber gloves? -- Mark dispatched the pigeon into the evening. It seemed prone to bump into things (since pigeons are not night birds), but I like to think it escaped with much of its blood and feathers, although I doubt it was smart enough to have a story to tell down at The Peaks, the Noe Valley dive bar that seemed to be its logical terminus.

And if it didn't make it far, at least it was a meal for the yellowjackets, who are, after all, meat bees. It'll stave off their hunger so they don't come looking for us.

I've since recovered from my cold, having decided that having a cold isn't what it used to be. And Lumpy -- he's discovered he has a taste for mouse brains; don't ask me what it feels like to be awakened from a dead sleep by the sound of a cat chomping on a mouse skull. I might tell you.

And next time someone sneezes on me on 42nd Street, I'm going to spray myself tip to toe with Lysol. Remind me not to stay in Midtown again.

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