You'll please excuse me if I interrupt this column from time to time to dash to the bathroom. I have the flu.
There are apparently two kinds of flu. One starts in your throat with an annoying dryness and a gagging sensation, and eventually spreads to your head, your chest, your back and your legs -- nothing you need, unless you plan to live through the week -- and produces nausea, aches, tiredness, sneezing, a voice like Baba Wawa and an overwhelming desire to leap off the 19th-floor parapet of the Hyatt Regency and land flush on that idiot woman playing the harp in the lobby at 7 in the morning. This flu lasts five days, or until the chicken fat begins to seep through your pores and you hear yourself say "bggawwk, bggawwk" when your kids ask if you'd like some more soup.
The other flu starts in your stomach and hunkers down there like a tribe of squatters. It produces simultaneous diarrhea and vomiting, the old D&V, which leaves you confused as to which way to turn -- and wondering where God got His zany sense of humor. You dare not eat or drink a thing. To what end? Literally. How can you eat? Your teeth feel like rutabagas, and your tongue looks like the thing that burst out of the guy's solar plexus in "Alien." The doctor says you should drink to avoid dehydration. Oh, dehydration is bad? This is a romp in the park, but dehydration is what will kill me? Good, give me dehydration. This flu lasts 24 hours -- the longest 24 hours since PBS ran "A Day in the Life of Elliot Richardson" -- nearly all of which you spend in close proximity to a tile floor asking how you could have been so stupid as to cut class the day they went over this in biology.
Lucky me. I have both.
(Excuse me. Be right back.)
I've spent the last eight hours taking measurements around my house. I want to know exactly how far it is to the bathrooms from anywhere. I want to know if I can make it, or should I just order new carpet now?
"Flu is a good topic to write about," my friend Norman said. "It's really going around now. I just talked to Vinnie -- he was hacking up something green."
I knew I was going to get the flu. It was just a matter of time. Five days ago my son had it. He threw up four times. Two days ago my daughter had it. She threw up eight times. I knew when my turn rolled around I was looking at double figures. Yesterday morning I got the first telltale signs, the fogginess in the forehead and the perpetual squint. By noon, my skin felt like I'd fallen asleep on a radiator. I spent the afternoon thinking what a waste of money it was sending 400,000 troops to Iraq when we could just Express Mail my flu to Saddam.
(Oops. Be back in a second.)
Children are unbothered by the flu. They get it, no big deal. The older you get, though, the greater the dread. Let's suppose we could choose which kind of flu to have -- the five-day ache-all-over malaise, or the 24-hour fire hose blast. A college student will invariably select the shorter, more intense flu. What's throwing up to them? Nothing. They do it all the time. It's like a lab science. A quick rrrrralph, and they're back at the keg. Now, a mature 40-year-old adult might be tempted to walk the same route, and this would be a terrible blunder, because you forget how unbelievably awful and disgusting throwing up is if you haven't done it in 15 or 20 years. I wouldn't wish it on a dog. I take that back. I would wish it on a dog. Just not a dog in my house.
Amazingly, some people think the flu is fun -- my smart friend Martha, who hardly ever gets sick, for example. She actually enjoys it. "My favorite part," she said -- her favorite part! -- "is when your hair hurts so you can't brush it, and you can walk around with it sticking straight up. It really adds to the ambiance. I learned this from my mother, the opera singer. She'd get a cold, and it was Mimi's death scene from 'La Boheme.' "
At least the flu these days isn't what it was 100 years ago. Then it was an epidemic. Deaths from the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 numbered in the millions! America's best-loved feature writer Mr. Henry points out, "That was when men were men and flu was flu." That was the golden age of flu. Now it's all these designer flus:
Swine flu, horrible to contemplate. You find you have an unquenchable urge to block for Mark Rypien. (I was suspicious of the logic of the swine flu shot. Why let them inject you with a small dose of the flu to build an immunity? Would you let a doctor pump you with a .22 so you'd be immune later if you got whacked with a .357 Magnum? I think not.)
Type-A flu, which affects those with neurotic, overachieving personalities. John Sununu routinely gets this flu.
(The Rockin' Pneumonia and) the Boogie-Woogie flu.
Chimney flu, particularly prevalent Christmas Eve when fat fathers stupidly get stuck in the brickwork pretending to be Santa Claus.
One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest, treatable by lobotomy.
Doug Flutie, a particularly short, scrambling flu.
Mr. Henry believes flu has been devalued, like the letter X in the name of a car to designate a souped-up model. It used to be only daredevil drivers like Stirling Moss got behind the wheel of an X car. Now everything -- except my Chevette, of course -- has an X in it. (My Chevette is a turbo.)
"Nobody gets a cold anymore," Mr. Henry says. "A cold is as rare as Creutzfeldt-Jakob syndrome," which, as Mr. Henry well knows, is a degenerative neurological disease isolated in the South Pacific islands that one might acquire by eating other people's brains. (No thanks, I'll stick with the fried shrimp.) "Everything is the flu. You can hardly call your boss and say, 'I won't be in today. I have a cold.' You have to have the flu. Nobody gets a cold. Nobody gets the trots. Nobody gets a headache. It's automatically the flu."
Not tonight, dear, I have the flu.
Or, as we might say by 1995, when the flu goes the way of the common cold, "Not tonight, dear, I have ' Creutzfeldt-Jakob syndrome."
Oh! Can you take it the rest of the way without me?