Guns, Germs and Hypochondriacs

Opposites attract.

Staff Sergeant Kevin L. Zetina, Platoon 2085's...
Staff Sergeant Kevin L. Zetina, Platoon 2085's senior drill instructor, bellows cadence while practicing for Company G's final drill competition. Deutsch: Ausbilder (Drill Instructor) beim United States Marine Corps. Español: Un instructor abordando a los marines estadounidenses. A drill instructor addressing United States Marines / Not Drill Sergeant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

We’re Still Together

We’re Still Together

 There’s a tree out in the backyard

That never has been broken by the wind

And the reason its still standing

It was strong enough to bend

 

When you say something that you can’t take back

Big wind blows and you hear a little crack

When you say “Hey well I might be wrong”

You can sway with the wind till the storm is gone

Sway with the wind till the storm is gone

 

Like a tree out in the backyard

That never has been broken by the wind

Our love will last forever

If we’re strong enough to bend 

 

Strong Enough To Bend, Tanya Tucker

 In a career that may never be equaled as a basketball coach, John Wooden won a remarkable 664 games and lost a mere 162.  His UCLA teams won 10 national championships in 12 years including seven in a row from 1966-1973.  During this period his teams won 88 straight games.  In his career, he led four different teams to perfect 30-0 seasons.

 If you were to ask John Wooden about his greatest decision in his remarkable career, he would unquestionably point to his decision to marry Nellie Riley, his high school sweetheart in 1932.  Nellie was the center of John’s universe and the person he claimed knew him better than he knew himself.   He once remarked that marriage like sports did not build character but revealed it.  

 Nellie and John were married for 53 years before she died of cancer in 1985.  For the last 24 years since her passing, John Wooden sits down on the 21st of each month and pens a love letter to Nell, his best friend.  According to sports journalist Rick Reilly, there are over 260 letters stacked neatly on her pillow, tied with a yellow ribbon.  Her side of the bed they shared remains undisturbed. When asked by Reilly if he was afraid to die, a then 90 year-old Wooden remarked, “ of course not, Death is my only chance to be with her again.”

 With over a 50% divorce rate in America, it’s even odds at best for couples to make it to the mountaintop together.  The cynics delight in reminding us of just how perilous the path is to the peak of life partnership.  British author Len Deighton once wrote, “the tragedy of marriage is that while all women marry thinking that their man will change, all men marry believing their wife will never change.”

 In any relationship and in life, you are really three people – the person you project to the world, the person you secretly see yourself to be, and the person your partner knows. It’s that last person who is probably the most accurate version of who you really are.  Most relationships get into trouble when the chasm between our face to the world and the person our partner knows becomes too great.  It seems the more we seek to be the same person all the time, the more capacity we have to focus on others which is the essential ingredient to love and the antithesis of self worship.

 It is a paradox of the human condition that we seem to gravitate toward our opposites.  I have a theory that in every relationship, there is an agitator and a fixer. The agitator is an expressive, aggressive and more mercurial partner while the fixer is the moderating influence, the rock, and a steady hand. When two agitators marry, it can be a combustible combination.  When two fixers exchange vows, the relationship may seem the equivalent to watching a test pattern at three am. And, yet while our personal preferences and aggressive or moderate styles bring a rich trousseau to our relationships, the foundations that remain the strongest are built on shared values.  When we see one another for who we are and who we are not – forgiving our limitations and reveling in our possibilities, a relationship breaks out of its chrysalis and takes wing.

 In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king and in love the ability to reflect even momentarily, sometimes prevents us from falling prey to the false positives -the cotton candy rush of self-esteem borne out of immediate physical attraction.  We all learn the hard way that the currents of a relationship change with the trade winds of time – the arrival of children, life events that challenge our faith in one another, illness, success, disappointment and death.  Woody Allen, mused that a relationship “ is like a shark, it has to keep moving forward or it dies.”

 Those who have been married for decades do not gild the lily of love.  They talk of constant compromise, trying to avoid taking one another for granted, expressing appreciation, forgiveness, making time, playing the mood music, seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, recognizing perfect moments, never forgetting that anything you put ahead of each other eventually comes between you, you and remembering that resentment is liking drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.  As these couples hurtle through life and fall prey to life’s ruts and distractions, they always circle back to find one another. “A marriage”, Honore de Balzac mused, “must constantly fight the monster which devours everything: routine.”

Commitment is not 50/50 but in fact two people giving 100%.  When the rate of change outside the relationship exceeds the rate of change within it, the end is near.  Many endure dark passages where they are overwhelmed by excessive responsibility or self-pity and must fight the instinct to abandon ship.  Some idealize relationships and love, wondering why their best-laid plans are constantly sabotaged.  Many make the mistake of comparing their private “insides” to other people’s public veneers.   We cannot resist the invitation when Cosmopolitan asks us to “rate our mate.” We forget what Oscar Wilde assured us when he said “the only normal people you know are the people you do not know very well.”

 And we are still together.  A gentle sigh in the dark of midnight.  A smile across a crowded room.  An extemporaneous moment at a piano recital – rare moments that are only complete when it can be shared together.  There are flash points, disagreements, and tired, lazy shortcuts that lead to hurt feelings.  But most of us find our way back to one another like emotional strays that once fed, keep returning for sustenance.  For all their periodic insanity, we need our relationships.  Perhaps some of our stories are not as romantic as John and Nellie Wooden or New man and Woodward but we all have chapters remaining to be written and common music to left to be made.  Our experiences together are the fine threads in our common tapestry of commitment.  Each couple is its own unique work of art.  And the beauty of that art is always in the eyes of the beholder.

 Woody Allen sums it up best in Annie Hall, “this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.”