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Sunday, Feb. 02, 2003
I think it started with Ben, the fifteen year old, and the germ warfare production factory which he faithfully attends every weekday. A factory which doubles as a secondary school.

He came home coughing and hacking. Sneezing. When queried by his mother, he admitted that he felt like ass but not quite so bad that he needed to miss school. Funny Ė my kids frequently get perfect attendance notated on their report cards Ė they are seldom sick and even when they are, they seem to prefer to go to school rather than hang around the house and listen to oft-repeated tales of Outfoxed being wheeled into class on a hospital bed complete with a poker handful of IVís.

For Ben, the flu came and went, but he was aided in the recovery by a couple of very timely snow days. Snow days which produced a four day weekend and plenty of rest time. Just enough time to pass it on to his mother.

Ally contracted it, and the hacking and sneezing commenced. Bundled in a blanket in front of the TV, she spent her days and nights in the typical Ally way of fighting sickness. Very quietly and very stoically. Iíd volunteer to make a run to the store for whatever she needed and got the usual response, ďAll I really need is rest.Ē

Sickness very seldom visits me. Flu, colds, what have you. A virus trying to attach itself to a bloodstream that receives regular cleansing with Coors Lite (and a diet that includes various decadent foodstuffs sufficient to alarm a billy-goat) just doesnít stand a chance. That, and all my healthy outdoor living in the purity of freezing arctic air, might guarantee a flu-free winter.

So you would think.

But I got the flu, or the croup or bronchitis or whatever the hell you want to call it in spite of myself. I got it in a way that, letís just say, was guaranteed to pass germs from one sick person to a healthy one. It was certainly a most delightful way to get sick. And the next time Ally says that sheís ďPretty much over the flu . . .Ē I want it in writing.

I might not be sick very often, but when I am, I want to make it memorable.

The wailing and howling began early Thursday morning. Stu made his normal 5:30 am call, inquiring about the workday ahead, and in a raspy voice I told him ďMan, you better go ahead without me, Iím coughing and sneezing my ass off. Better stay home and let Ally nurse me back to health.Ē Stu sputtered a little, his disposition toward sickness is much the same as mine, reasoning that illness is just not suited to a grumpy old man.

At 7 am, I lay prone in the Laz-Y-Boy, a blanket around my feet and a damp washcloth draped over my forehead, as Ally eased her way downstairs for coffee and a glance at the paper. Occasionally coughing, that deep diaphragm reversing cough which suggests imminent hurling of lung tissue. Ally stopped by on her way to the coffeepot to take a look.

ďOh honey, are you sick now?Ē, she asked. ďThat cough doesnít sound good at all. What can I get for you? Did you take any medicine?Ē And the nursing cycle was off and running. While Ally may be stoic in regards to her own health, she is the very picture of concern when it comes to dealing with her charges, me in particular. It takes only a minimum of moaning on my behalf to discharge that nursing/motherhood trait common to all good women. It takes very little to raise the flag, the Red Cross flying in the front yard that lets the world know that ďThe Great Man is Down! Heís down and we must pray for the recovery of his health!Ē

There isnít a single Christian soul within a mile radius who doesnít know Iím ill.

I donít know if all men get this sort of treatment, but I suspect that they do. Mothers and wives are quietly sick, they cause no trouble, there is hardly a ripple in the flow of day to day life.

But let the man take sick and youíd think the world is about to end. Maybe itís the shock of seeing a large male prone and feebly gasping for more Kleenex, more steam from the vaporizer, warmer socks, colder icebags, different TV remotes, and ďfor Godssakes why donít we have any Nyquil in the cabinet?Ē For when the Alpha male goes down, he goes down hard, and the Alpha female is left to tend both the field and the farm, and be charming and concerned about both of them.

Perhaps the most troubling thing to me about this particular round of coughing is that it didnít seem to be getting any better. If anything, it was getting worse. You know the kind of cough that is so severe, so wrenching that you feel certain that blood is coming up? Thatís the sort of cough I had by Friday morning.

And truth be known, it probably didnít help matters much at all that I continued to smoke my pack and a half of cigarettes a day, cough or no cough. Iím stubborn that way.

Now I donít comment on this much, my personal vices being what they are, but Iíve been huffing Salem Lights for the better part of 25 years. Brand loyalty aside, the lads at R. J. Reynolds of Winston-Salem, NC, have made a few dollars in profit off old Outfoxed. Iíve read all the reports, Iíve heard all the medical advice that is possible to hear. Iíve been re-directed to the unfashionable side of restaurants, been told to take it out of doors, been forced to take it all the way to my car and even farther.

I responded to most of this with a single digit salute. I enjoy smoking. Yes, itís bad for me. Yes, it costs me ever increasing amounts of personal cash. Yes, itís dirty and smelly and I know that people donít care to be around it. Itís my habit, you have a few of your own that arenít terribly attractive to me.

But I couldnít quite reason with a lung hurling cough using the same snarling vindictiveness. My chest was really hurting bad, my lungs, my windpipe. The whole system was getting ready to shut down and I had to make a choice. To breathe or not?

So, for the first time in 25 years, I laid down the pack of cigarettes and the engraved Zippo lighter that Ally gave me and walked away. Letís see, itís about 8 am on a Sunday now, which means I havenít had a cigarette for going on 40 hours.

And my whole body is screaming. I dreamed about smoking last night, dreamed of smoke curling up from my fingers, a dream so real I could taste the menthol. I woke up, certain that my self-imposed ban on cigarettes had come to a crashing halt. My mouth, in particular, is like one big nerve ending. Especially since I just finished off that second cup of coffee.

But (can you imagine?) my cough is nearly gone.

Iím not saying that Iím quitting for good. I still say that I enjoyed that cigarette, that sucking smoke and expelling same was a happy thing. A thing that I enjoyed doing as a symbolic part of the everyday rebellion against what society and the fashion elite deem to be acceptable. A thing best practiced by the individual, the lone wolf, the naysayer, the grumpy.

They say if you can quit for three days, youíve done a lot to overcome the physical nicotine addiction. For you non-smokers out there, nicotine is the stuff dude. Keep your heroin, give me nicotine anyday.

For 25 years, Iíve been doing this. I hate change. I hate having to give up something I enjoy. I hate looking like Iím selling out to the thought police, the new world order or whatever you want to call it. I hate their smug assessment of smokers, the way they happily condone new taxes on tobacco or other ďsin productsĒ to raise money for more shopping malls.

Bah. Enough. Iím going out for a beer at the Breakfast Club. My last refuge of sinners.

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