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Volume 73, Number 29 | November 19 - 25, 2003


Are we sometimes allergic to what’s good for us?

By Alphie McCourt

It was told to me as a Polish joke. Here it is, under a different guise. A young unmarried Irish girl comes home to her father. Nervously she tells him, “Daddy, Daddy, I’m pregnant.”

Dad puffs on his pipe and asks, “Are you sure it’s yours?”

So it is with allergies. Sometimes I think that allergies are used as a blanket diagnosis for what cannot be diagnosed. Allergies are very personal. When people complain to me about their allergies, as in, “My allergies are killing me today,” I am tempted to ask, “Are you sure they’re yours?”

A few years ago I had a complete physical. After waiting a week for the test results, I went to see the doctor. “Surprisingly good,” said he.

“What?” said I.

“Your tests,” he said. “They’re surprisingly good.”

“And what does that mean?” I could have asked him. I’ve “smoked by brain” as the song says. And I’ve drunk more than my share. But I had already told him all that.

“Should I be worse off?” I should have asked. “Is that what you’re telling me? Just how ‘surprisingly good’ are these results? Is it a question of degree? Am I in good condition, relatively speaking? Or am I supposed to be dead and, therefore, in surprisingly good condition because I’m not? Am I already dead but still giving off signs of life?” I didn’t ask. I thanked the doctor, took my results and left.

For all I know, given my frequent bouts of sneezing, I may have one or more allergies. Maybe I’m too dumb to know it. Or too thick to admit it. But I do know that I am spared the terrible heavy-headedness, the misery of the running nose and the constant irritation of the eyes that I’ve seen in so many allergy sufferers.

Susan’s children are allergic to everything. I meet her sometimes as I walk across the playground. She plays kickball. She kicks, awkwardly, mind you, but she kicks. Her older son chases the ball. “Don’t run, don’t run,” she calls out. And there’s the crux.

“My children are in the ninetieth percentile for respiratory infections,” Susan tells me, with a hint of pride. Is she proud of the distinction or is she merely proud of her fortitude in caring for her afflicted children? It’s hard to say. At first, I laughed to myself. Then I was sorry that I had laughed. An anomaly and a rare species, she is an educated woman who has chosen to be a full time “homemaker.”

“Homemaker” has all the cheer of a wintry twilight, the sparkle of a nun’s brown habit, the sex appeal of a laundry detergent. It sure does not describe Susan in her warmth, her enthusiasms, her fierce protectiveness, in her embrace of motherhood. The term “homemaker” was probably dreamed up by some windowless bureaucrat darkdreaming among filing cabinets. The Women’s Movement should have trashed it years ago. Maybe they did and I missed it.

Susan and her family live in Chelsea. They are prosperous and self-sufficient, her husband held prisoner by his rising prosperity. The children want and want, more and more and more. His company’s fortunes may rise or fall along with the Dow Jones, but the real measure of his success is the index of his children’s expectations. Gone from early morning until late evening, he is “in communications” and, for the most part, incommunicado.

Susan, wife and mother, is white and middle class. She is denied recognition or distinction, denied even the helmet of heroism bestowed, exclusively, on the white, middle class “single mother.” Is it any wonder, then, that she embraces this ninetieth percentile, this medical/statistical stardom for her children? And there is considerable disarray in her life. Her children’s ailments, the focus of her attention, may be a welcome alibi for that disarray. We all need an alibi, don’t we, for one thing or another, at one time or another?

Dermot does. A friend of mine, in his early 30s, he is undergoing counseling. “So, how is the counseling?” I asked him recently.

“It’s going O.K.,” he said. “The therapist told me that I have problems with authority. He’s right. I had problems with my parents, with my teachers, even with the local police.”

“Good for him,” I said. “Maybe you’ll work it out now.” I wanted to say more. I wanted to say that his problems with authority may serve as an explanation but will never be an excuse. He has already been in some minor trouble with the New York City Police.

“Tell it to the judge,” I wanted to say, “when you get into some real trouble. Or tell it to the guys up the river. They’re just waiting for a young fresh-faced kid like you. I’m sure they’ll be very sympathetic. After they get through with you.”

I said none of this. It would be unkind and unfair. Besides, I’m far from qualified.

And my own voyage so far has been no model of balance and adjustment. “Be careful, be prudent and soldier on,” I told Dermot. Then I remembered my brother Malachy.

“The best thing to do with advice,” Malachy has been heard to say, “is to pass it on.” And that’s good advice, isn’t it?

Susan assumes the burden of her children’s illnesses and escapes her own life. Dermot blames his problems on authority. A housepainter, he works in Downtown Manhattan and lives in his Irish ghetto, way Uptown. Sometimes he connects with a woman. I can tell by his smile when I meet him.

“I met a young lady last night,” he’ll say. When queried, he shrugs and grins. He is a talented tennis player and a great soccer player. His drinking buddies admire his athletic prowess. And they laugh behind their hands at his hearing aids and his high jinx when he drinks. In his middle 30s, now, he lives alone.

Her neighbors respect Susan for her intelligence, for her education and for her devotion to her children. But they look askance at the intensity of that same devotion and at her seeming inability to impose order on her life.

Dermot is devil-may-care and in deadly earnest. Susan alternates between sunny smile and anxious frown. More self-centered than selfish, both of them are self-absorbed to the point of having a very narrow focus. A psychologist by profession, Susan is well qualified to serve as therapist and counselor to Dermot. He, in turn, could easily refurbish her apartment and bring order to her life. He does go out to work early in the morning but he could be home before dinner. The question is: Can she cook it, and can he hack it?

Dermot works in the neighborhood where Susan lives. They must have passed each other in the street, but it’s unlikely that they’ve ever met. They must meet, someday. Theirs is a New York story, yet to be told. When they do meet, I hope that it’s not too late, that the circumstances are favorable and that Dermot is good to the children.


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