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Thursday, Sept. 21, 2006 | Sure enough, last weekend, Acorn Fever weather came and went. I tried to deny it, refused to bundle up in any way in the momentary hours of chill. And so I caught a cold.
September in San Diego is a lousy time to have a cold. Colds and hot, dry weather do not mix. In such weather, humans naturally cool themselves by perspiring, and then a breeze comes along, or in September, any breath of air at all and the combination of sweat and breeze acts like air conditioning on the skin. Very refreshing, unless you have a cold, which makes the air conditioning effect feel like a chill that is going to make the cold worse. There is no place in hot weather where a man with a cold can go. He needs to stay warm, so he has to avoid air conditioning, but he doesn’t want to sweat, so he can’t get too hot.
Karen, my wife, thought it might be an allergy. “Your eyes are red and puffy,” she said. “Looks like an allergy looks.”
“I’m not allergic to anything,” I said. She shrugged. “I’m not allergic to anything out here,” she said, “but back in the Midwest, there were a couple of things that got to me. Maybe this weather brings out something that you could be allergic to.”
“I’m not allergic to anything,” I said. Karen thinks I am stubborn, and denying any possibility of an allergy would be an example of this. I acknowledge being closed-minded about some things, and I understand the reasons why. Most of it is cultural. Texas boys born in the 1940s very quickly learned the value of being tough. We were taught it by our elders, who in fact had to be very tough, sometimes, to live in West Texas in the early 20th century. For boys my age, though, being tough became more a badge of culture than a physical or emotional necessity. When we caught colds, our culture was to deny it.
For me, specifically, there was a second reason to hide a cold. My grandmother, Susie, was genuinely tough. She came from Alabama to Texas in a wagon, in a time when a big part of a woman’s job was to keep men fed, when they came in from the fields, and healthy, so they could get back into the fields.
So Susie was very suspicious of illness. If she heard me so much as sniffle, she grabbed my wrist, dragged me to the bedroom, shucked me out of my clothes, and instituted the Vicks Treatment. Medical science then wasn’t what it is today, and Susie grew up with two treatments for all illnesses or injuries: black salve and Vicks Vapo-Rub. The black salve was some petroleum-based horror that was squeezed out of a tube and applied to the affliction.
Vicks was, well, Vicks. As I lay mewling in protest, Susie marched to the kitchen, threw a cup towel into the oven, and turned it on to 500 degrees. She came back to my bedroom with the jar of Vicks and slathered a nice layer of it on my chest. “Don’t move,” she said, and went for the cup towel. My every instinct yelled at me to move, to run, to hide, but where is a kid going to hide when his chest is slathered over with Vicks Vapo-Rub? Back she came with the 500-degree cup towel and slapped it over the Vicks on my chest, and snugged the covers up under my chin. In her apron was a tablespoon, and this she dipped into the jar of Vicks, brought out a big gob, and gave it to me with the command, “Swallow this.”
You see how I could have remained stubborn, even five decades later, about downplaying my condition. But Karen is changing that. I am learning that with a woman like Karen around, sometimes it pays to be sick. “A hot soak will make you feel better,” she said. “Nah,” I said, but then changed my mind, elbowed the culture aside, because she had fixed me a hot soak last year, when I was sick. You remember hot soaks and the Vicks Treatment in two completely different ways. She ran a hot tub, dumped in some Epsom salts, set a little plastic cup of Scotch on the side of the tub for me, and asked me to lean back and relax for 20 minutes or so.
You see why when Karen says I should drink a lot of water – “flush out the system,” she says – and rest and take Advil for the aches, I become inclined to listen to her. I am also about to go down to the drugstore for an allergy medication, just in case. “If it is an allergy, you will feel better immediately,” she says. I believe her. But I may not take it until after tonight’s soak.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com. Or, send a letter to the editor.