College students, future generations of professional leaders that they are, do not have a reputation for stellar hygiene. Rather, they are known for being something of a dirty population–prone to sudden expectoration after an evening of imbibing beverages, rolling out of bed unwashed in order to make it to class on time, and giving their undergarments a second act of wearing before laundering. They are, after all, college students. They are known to be broke.
Because they have this sordid reputation, and because my wife and I both have been ourselves college students, we have something of a defense system in place to protect our offspring from the side effects of contact with dirty folks, namely, communicable disease. She accepts electronic papers from her students. I refrain from getting within two feet of any student volunteer at my agency, especially during flu season. As Emile is not yet capable of blowing his nose, our goal is to avoid upper respiratory infections whenever possible. I’m a fan of hand washing, although the skin on my hands is not.
But sometimes one hits a tipping point, and no amount nor cleverness of avoidance with viruses will prevent picking up a variant of the common cold. Susanne was the first to take ill, feeling a definite decrease in her energy level and a nagging cough. Emile and I carried on with no symptoms, so for a few days we all wondered if she was just feeling the start of pollen season.
And then, there it was, a ninja of a tickle hiding at the back of my throat, tickling me when it was inconvenient. Which I guess isn’t really the modus operandi of ninjas, but whatever. There it was, tickle, tickle. If only I could will myself not to cough. I tried, of course. I tried the cough stifle maneuver, but no go. Instead I’m pretty sure that at work and in the car, at lunch, and walking downtown I just looked like a constipated creep.
Eventually the coughing won out, and then I entered new territory—the cough-pee. Every fifth hack or so I’d realize all over again that my pelvic floor muscles need some attention. Great. I should have paid attention to that short-lived Whoopi Goldberg commercial about occasional incontinence. I’m 41 and occasionally incontinent? They don’t even make a 12-step meeting for this. Why?
Because it’s too embarrassing.
This was one cruel cold. I was reduced to a sneezing, sneeze-peeing, coughing, cough-peeing, phlegmy middle-aged man who looked like he wanted to rip the faces off of puppies. I really just wanted to be me again.
In the midst of this a student group asked me to be on a panel to discuss an AIDS and HIV documentary. Turns out it was scheduled in a chemistry lab. I wondered for the merest of moments if I could don a thick apron in case I entered a coughing fit and needed coverage, but I didn’t see any on hand. Now not only was I battling some cold that was out to humiliate me, but I’d willingly entered the lion’s den of dirty college student people.
I blamed my throat ninjas for pushing me toward self-destruction. But if I went down, I was taking them with me.
Next came the wheezing. It seemed that my lungs were capable of making a new series of noises I’d never created before, and these sounds emanated even when I wasn’t in the act of exhaling or inhaling. Several times I looked around whatever room I was in to identify what I was hearing, and then it would dawn on me that I was the noisemaker. It’s kind of like stumbling on a snoring kitten, just a light little purr that could easily be missed.
It’s hard to look serious in a meeting when kitten wheeze pops up. Not that my coworkers take me seriously, but this really moves my reputation in the wrong direction.
It’s been a week now, and the cold finally shows signs of abating. Good thing, because my bladder, throat, and lungs need a break.
Dear college students: Please shower. And wash your hands. Thank you.