EVERY YEAR they give it a different name. One year they call it the Hong Kong Flu, the next year they call it Virus Al, then Texas flu. No matter what they call it, to the person who has it, it's just plain flu.

The problem is that flu has no sex to it. It's not one of those glamorous diseases you can make an entire movie about. When you call someone up and say you've got the flu they don't say, "I'll be right over." The usual response is "I'll see you in August."

Even doctors don't want to talk to people who have the flu. Most leave strict instructions with their nurses: "If anyone calls and tells you they have the flu - I'm out."

I'm wise to these instructions so when I called my doctor and the nurse asked what was wrong, I said, "Nothing really. Just tell the doctor I was sawing down a tree and I cut off my arm."

My doctor was on the phone in two minutes.

"What kind of saw was it?" he wanted to know.

"I lied," I said. "I have the flu."

"That's a terrible thing to do to a doctor," he said. "Here I an dealing with more sick people than I can handle, and you bother me with something like the flu."

"People with the flu can be sick too," I said defensively.

"Yes," he said, "But doctors can't do anything about them. All we can prescribe is rest, liquids aspirin."

"I knew you'd say that," I said.

"Then why did you call?" he asked.

"Because I just wanted it on the record that I called you in case I really got sick."

"It's been noted," he said.

"Doctor," I said.

"Now what is it?" he said.

"I love you," I said.

I heard him shout at his secretary, "If anyone calls and says he cut off his arm while sawing down a tree tell him I'm only taking flu calls."

With the flu you go through many stages. The first is chills, aching bones, sore throat and sniffles. All you want to do is sleep. This is the best stage because the days fly by and you really don't care about anything.

The second stage is when you still feel punk but are aware of what is going on around you. This is the most miserable period. If, for example, your wife leaves you for an hour to buy groceries, it is at that moment that the Roto Rooter man arrives and says, "I got 200 feet of coil. You think that's enough?"

Or the man from United Parcel Service rings the bell and says, "The people next door aren't home. Mind if I leave the package with you?"

The third stage of flu is when you think you're getting well and start yelling, "I have to get out of this house or I'll go crazy." The truth is you're not ready to go yet, but depending on the relationship you have with your wife she will either insist you stay in bed a couple more days, or encourage you to go out in the sleet and snow.

The most dangerous stage of flu is, strangely, the final one when you think you're all better, but for some reason have become hooked on the daytime soap operas and game shows, and refuse to leave the house because you're afraid you'll miss a sequence.

The best way to tell when you're completely over the flu is to watch one of the game shows on TV. If Candice Bergen can't win $25,000 for some widow from Baton Rouge, and it doesn't bother you: you know it's time to go back to work.