They also marry and discover along the primrose path of marital bliss what the French call, “le difference”. Love is indeed blind and when a couple is first intoxicated by mutual attraction, a thick cataract forms over their eyes – precluding any ability to see things for what they are. Eventually the X and Y chromosomes recover from their initial pheromone-fueled joy rides and discover the differences in how they approach life.
Men are loud, visceral creatures who aggressively seek to conquer and accumulate. Secretly, they are neonates seeking to return to the womb. Women are more subtle and versatile forms of fauna using their twin skills of nature and nurture to navigate a thankless peanut gallery of expectations. Privately, they just want to be in charge of an all-Italian male model pool cleaning service.
Men are a mass of contradictions. After years of being indulged by their mothers, watching sitcom matriarchs and digesting blatant misinformation from other men, they enter marriages and relationships with a distorted expectation of what their partner must bring to the party. Apparently, a nice cheese dip is not enough. Men also want their mommy.
Women fall in love with the notion of being in love. Men appear to them like puppies – cute, friendly and somewhat fragrant. By the time, they have been taken home, it is too late to give them back and your house smells. When a woman realizes that her knight in shining armor is really sporting tin foil, wearing dirty underwear and perpetually prone to watch re-runs of the Godfather, a woman can become disillusioned. This is why you often see mothers and daughters crying at a wedding. They are not overcome with emotion. The mother, having drank too much champagne, has just taken their daughter aside and shared with her what life might be like after the honeymoon. Men misinterpret this matromonial female cry-a-thon as a byproduct of nostalgia when in fact, it is Mom breaking to daughter the news that behind the hunter-gatherer lurks a child who just wants to stay home from work and play with his plastic soldiers.
When it comes to the cold and flu season, roles change with women often morphing into the “drill sergeant “ and men into the “baby”. A drill sergeant views illness as a temporary setback that must be denied at all costs. Sickness is a self-fulfilling prophesy and the drill sergeant refuses to acknowlege anything less than blood from three orifices. Drill sergeants hail from large families and the “suck it up“ school of parenting. They believe in mud poultices and Mary Baker Eddy. Babies, however, are still nostalgic for small country inns, soft blankets and the pulsing heart beat that comes at the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” — anything that reminds them of the nine months inside Mom’s pouch.
Men become huge infants when they are ill. The slightest cold or fever is usually the beginning of a pandemic. Women are taught to endure. This plays itself out each season as men complain to other men that their wives show them little sympathy when they are ill. Wives must keep the house going even when they are sick and as a result, have contempt for “babies” who cannot get up to get a cup of water, let alone, help with the kids.
Men never really notice when their wives are ill. “My wife never gets sick” a friend shared with me as his wife was coughing up a lung while we were out to dinner. Yet, when a man is sick, he reverts to fetal rocking, moaning and deep adolescent dependence. To a drill sergeant, this contemptible behavior is worthy of court-marshal.
I should have registered the subtle harbingers of intolerance when my wife and I were dating. I knew she was a first generation Brit. However, I assumed the “stiff upper lip” and “it’s just a flesh wound” thing was Monty Python hyperbole. I assumed when the chips were down or coming up, she would transform into a Florence Nightingale that would nurture me by candle light – holding a vigil by my side of the bed until I was well.
I had grown up in a household where sickness afforded you a temporary celebrity status. In the home of my mother, there was an unwritten rule that if you were even thinking of getting ill, you went right to bed, eschewed all social obligations and incubated until the illness either hatched or the false alarm had passed. My mother would organize around the illness. She would sit like Mother Teresa, a kind silhouette in the flickering shadows of a night-light – cooling our feverish heads, rubbing our backs and humming soft songs. In a four-boy family where you had to compete for everything – – food, air, space and attention, illness gave you temporary immunity from obscurity. I often found myself envying my brothers when they became sick. The mother shepherd focused exclusively on her one wounded lamb, assigning us to our father who resented the fact that he had to talke care of us. It was clearly better to be sick than under the care of a man who still insisted that the Germans had been invited into Poland in 1939.
The arrival of a major epidemic like chicken pox or measles was greeted with 19th century pragmatism – – the infected child and his brothers were quarantined together in a room until everyone came down with the illness. “Best to get it all over at once “, She would shrug. In later years, we would feign illness by placing the thermometer on a hot lamp or enduring scalding hot showers to raise our body temperatures. We would then moan like ghosts wandering into her room to complain of a headache.
When I became a parent, I would disintegrate into worry when my first child became sick. Yet, I had been trained by the best in triage and bedside manner. In a strange way, their maladies made me feel more relevant. Enter the British wife. To the British female, illnesses are like road works, a temporary impediment that must be driven around. Years later, as we brought children into the world, the “Stiff Upper Lip“ school and the “It Could Be Plague“ schools would routinely clash over diagnoses and prognoses.
At the first sneeze, she would say, “it’s just a cold.” I would be certain it was Ebola. At the sound of a muffled midnight cough or sniffles, I was on the phone demanding access to a pediatrician. A headache ? Meningitis. That sore throat could be bird flu. “The last I checked none of us have been to China” my spouse would respond. ” We ate Chinese food the other night. Those dumplings could have been cooked by a carrier. “
As more children were born, I mellowed, graduating from burning the pacifier when it fell from their mouths, to wiping it on my pants to just popping it back in their mouths. My spouse, born to a midwife in a small English village, seemed pleased with my progress. We made quantum leaps such as actually agreeing to carry on with a vacation if one of the children came down with the sniffles or developed a cough. We braved a dinner party if I felt a little under the weather. And yes, we did send a child to school before they had been symptom free for 48 hours (that one had me sweating)
I suppose this pragmatic return to 19th century medicine is healthy. But, there are times when my entire family is fighting illness — coughing and sneezing, spreading their germs throughout the house – that I hide, paranoid and alone in my den. I sit wide-eyed reading – a modern day Howard Hughes devouring a book like, Guns, Germs and Steel. I may have lost the germ wars at home, but I am staying informed on epidemics and holding out for the day when they reconsider my years of hypochondriacal behavior and shake their heads saying, “My God, he was right“.
That’s usually about the only time my wife declares she needs an aspirin.