The Magazine

Joseph Epstein Has a Cold

Joseph Epstein, Sneezy.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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In the April 1966 issue of Esquire, Gay Talese published a famous article called "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." All I remember of the article is its moral: which was that, when Frank Sinatra has a cold, the world had better stand by with plenty of Kleenex.

I wish to announce that Joseph Epstein also has a cold, one of those full-court, knock-down, lots of coughing, sneezing, nose-blowing, firing from all portals, let 'er rip colds. In my case only my wife is offering Kleenex. Those sub-Sinatrian characters among us are left, I fear, to suffer without people around us tremblingly worried about our health.

I take even minor illnesses hard, not as hard as Sinatra did I'm sure, but hard enough. I consider a cold an affront, a personal insult. Couldn't the damn virus have found a hardier carcass than mine to settle upon? Without ever suffering any serious prolonged sickness, I nevertheless do not consider myself in robust health. Even as a boy athlete, I was never in shape. "When was the last time you felt really good?" a radio commercial of a few years ago asked. I had no problem answering "1950," when I was 13, or just before I began smoking in my 14th year, quitting a mere 26 years later while on a sun-drenched Swann's cruise to the Greek islands and the Dalmatian coast.

A sure sign of my being sick is that I find myself humming some of the worst popular songs ever written: "Cement Mixer, Putty, Putty," "Linda," and the always freshly banal "Tammy." At times of emotional turmoil, I am able to work through what is bothering me, setting it aside as I tap away on whatever I happen to be writing at the moment. But during a cold of any intensity, my mind clicks off: The ole hootie owl, hootie-hoo's to the dove, / Tammy, Tammy, Tammy's in love.

A bad cold is especially hard on the sufferer of shpilkosis, a chronic disease I've long harbored. Shpilkosis comes from the Yiddish word shpilkes, which means needles or pins in the pants; the opposite of serenity, the chief symptom of shpilkosis is the inability to sit quietly. The victim of shpilkosis needs to be on the go: checking for mail, taking or making telephone calls, popping out to the grocery store or dry cleaners or over to the library, keeping on the move.

A heavy cold masks but does not subdue shpilkosis. Under the cold, the shpilkotic feels the want of energy but does not lose the desire to keep fiddling, noodling, futzing around. The result is mild depression and low-grade agitation that finds no resolution. Not a good thing.

This cold is now going into its eighth day. During two of these days I had actually, as they used to write of women in Victorian novels, to repair to my bed. On both days I slept the day away, awaking near 5:30 P.M., just in time to hobble into the living room to watch the drearily sincere Brian Williams thanking attractive young women named Trish, Savannah, and Kelly for their inadequate descriptions of the latest depredations on the economy. None of this lifted the spirits, either.

The commercials on the network nightly news shows are directed at the sadly aging. Remedies for restless leg syndrome, osteoporosis, arthritis, stomach gas, and more all get their full dismal play, with their always entertaining list of side-effects joylessly iterated. Under the cloud of this cold, it occurred to me that some genius at Pfizer ought to come up with a pill to increase powers of memory and cognition in the aged, Cognagra it might be called, with an appropriate warning that if one has a reflection that lasts more than four hours one should consult a philosopher.

Now going into the second week with this cold, my appetite is back, the snuffling and coughing are less, but my former flow of restless energy refuses fully to return. Normally a
6 A.M. wake-up man, I have been lolling in bed until 7:30 or 8 A.M. This throws off the rhythm of my days. Some people are on a self-imposed schedule, and I am apparently one of them. I feel that I am falling behind in everything, even though no one is in fact waiting for me. Unlike, say, Frank Sinatra.

"Sinatra with a cold," Gay Talese wrote, "is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel--only worse. .  .  . A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a president of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy." Joseph Epstein with a cold, on the other hand, sends no vibrations anywhere and affects no one except himself, turning him into a red-nosed, wheezing, sneezing general nuisance. Pass the Kleenex, please.

JOSEPH EPSTEIN