Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell

SEVENTEEN
Living through the “Prime”

 [p.62]There are some things they don’t tell you about the prime of life. (You can call it “middle age” if you want; I prefer “the prime.”) Oh, they tell you about some of the little jolts. Who hasn’t heard about hot flashes and bifocals? But they neglect to tell you about the age-group epidemic. Babies have colic, kids have chicken-pox, teens have acne, and those of us in the prime of life have—

Let me put it this way. Do you remember the Alan Alda movie Four Seasons? (It really was Alda’s movie: he wrote, directed, and starred in it. Probably put the background music on the turntable at the appropriate moment during filming as well.) Now, who did I really identify with? Witty Carol Burnett? No. Volatile, feisty Rita (“I’m Italian!”) Moreno? Nope. Skipping right over the blonde beauty played by Bess Armstrong, we come to compassionate, intense Alan Alda himself. But no, I didn’t even identify with him. Actually, the only person in that whole cast who fascinated me (every one of the four times I’ve seen the picture) was Jack Weston, playing Danny, the resident hypochondriac. I hung on his funny, chilling speeches as if Mesmer-[p.63]ized. It was as though he had eavesdropped on my phone conservations.

Can I establish some credibility here, first? Hypochondria has not been a lifelong pattern. In grade school, I missed class only when my rambling through the woods of New Jersey resulted in poison ivy so virulent that I was unable to talk through my swollen lips. In high school, I was absent only when I sluffed (to see The Red Shoes and Cyrano de Bergerac—talk about terminal romanticism!) In college, if I cut early-morning classes, it was because I had been up till 3 a.m. putting the daily school paper to bed. In my first decade of college teaching, even when I broke both ankles I missed only four days.

But since the prime began to loom before me-and before my age-group peers, I might add—strange things have started happening. The Readers Digest, stacked unavoidably before me in the checkout line at the grocery store, shouts headlines about a new disease every month. (The Digest is unfailingly cheerful, I’ll say that for them; the last title I glanced at raved, “New Hope for the Dead!”) But just that litany of diseases, month after month, makes the Digest’s optimism a little like the mortician’s.

Every time the doorbell rings, it’s one of my neighbors collecting for the disease of the month. Last week, Mary Kay Peirce came by soliciting donations for Snyde’s Syndrome. I asked about it, and discovered it’s a rare disease of the hair that affects only the second-born sons of Serbo-Croatian parents who are left-handed. I gave five dollars. I know, my parents claimed they were Welsh, but you can’t be too careful.

Whenever I flip on TV, the picture invariably shows either a live human heart beating away while six doctors perform a quadruple by-pass or a documentary explaining what a huge black market there is for healthy human hearts and how many people have been showing up at the coroner’s with an unexplainable cavity in their chests.

Telephone conversations with good friends take one of two tacks: “Can You Top This?” or “What’s Good For?” “Can You Top This?” is a duet for alto and soprano, a melodramatic recital of symptoms. “No, no, it didn’t break the skin. But the rash has been there for three days. And I can only raise my left arm halfway over my head. Your knee is doing what? Did you say [p.64] your nose is aching? How can your nose ache, Gretchen? Do you mean your sinuses? Okay, okay, your nose, then.” “What’s Good For?” is based on the established truth that doctors, especially doctors who are not yet in the prime of life, don’t know everything, right? And if we don’t look out for ourselves, who will? “What’s Good For” is the password to the underground pharmacological network. “That’s right, two teaspoons of cayenne pepper, a tablespoon of honey, two mashed aspirin, a jigger of B&B, and a cup of boiling water. Well, all I know is that Frank’s mother swears by it, and she never misses a day of golf.” And now, after all these years and all the badmouthing about “old wives’ tales,” the guess-what-we’ve-discovered boys have come out and brazenly vindicated chicken soup and hot milk after all! Chicken soup is really supposed to do something for colds, and hot milk for insomnia. A two-hundred-thousand dollar government grant some nice beardless youth got to prove what his mother and her sisters had known for nothing.

Your body will also pick this time to have its own identity crisis, let me warn you. You have eaten hamburgers since before the golden arches ever existed, correct? Suddenly, as you ease into the prime, you1l discover your stomach will no longer have anything to do with hamburgers. Or pizza after six p.m. Or cola drinks after twelve noon. Or serious, adult mustard a la Dijon, forcing you to the humiliation of sunshine-yellow sissy-mustard. Well, you get the picture; I’ll draw a veil over the rest of the list.

Last night my sweet tooth was acting up. But sweets are bad, of course. I’d heard that sometimes eating a pickle will satisfy the craving for sugar. But just as I reached for a dill, I remembered that pickles are loaded with salt—very bad for blood pressure. What about a small chunk of cheese? Cholesterol. A little tuna fish? No, we’re boycotting tuna because of the dolphins. Maybe I’ll just have a slice of dry toast. What’s that inside the toaster—asbestos?