LOCAL VIEW —Pneumonia; a writer’s ruin—


I doubt anyone wants much to hear about my ten days with walking pneumonia, however therein lies the challenge:  A good writer can make anything interesting.

One interesting thing about pneumonia is that it makes interesting things dull.  Oxygen is darned important stuff. Little tanks of oxygen should be attached to the back of math books, with nozzles that spray into students’s faces. I, for one, might have found the classes more interesting. Many have told me that Math is actually an interesting subject, and all I can reply is that they obviously were getting more oxygen than I was.

The past ten days have been like a prolonged Math class. I kept waiting for the bell to ring, so I could rush out and escape the room and see life begin again. In fact I tried to keep myself going at the start, as often it seems to do more harm to give in to a cold, than to dress very warmly, eat very well, drink only one drink, sweat a lot, and sleep more than usual. Healthy work usually cures a cold, but not this time.

I felt very uneasy when I noticed lots of other old geezers my age were going down like dominoes,  and spending time in bed. Usually our immune systems have been exposed to so many bugs over the decades we can man the ship as the youth go down, but not this time. I’d bound from bed in the morning thinking, “I must be better by now,” but found I was weak as a kitten and slow as molasses and had a headache and feverish feeling starting in the middle of the morning, and by afternoon my temperature would be above a hundred. My IQ was well below that.

Finally I broke down and spent some time in bed. Antibiotics were not clearing my lungs, and proved my local doctor was quite correct when he told me the chest-cold afflicting the town was likely viral and not bacterial. I take viral pneumonia seriously, ever since it swiftly did in the creator of the Muppet’s.  (They’ve never been as good, ever since.)

It is very annoying to be stuck in bed when your IQ is greatly reduced and absolutely everything seems uninteresting. My main occupation was hacking up phlegm, and when I felt particularly congested I’d dress up like it was minus-forty when it actually was thawing, and go out to split some wood for the fire, as exercise seems to clear roughly a pound of phlegm from my system. Then I’d have a deep drink of water and crawl shuddering back to bed.

My dull mind got to thinking, as my fever spiked, about the expression “British Phlegm.”  I’d always thought it was a rather cool trait, (for example, when they arrive home and see ten firetrucks and the entire block ablaze and their home burning from cellar to attic, they calmly say something such as, “I must remember not to make the fire insurance payment for the next quarter, next week.”) Now it seemed a sort of insulting expression, equating the English with mucus.

Ordinarily I’d hop on that idea like a chicken on a worm, but a speedy response was too much like work, so I took a nap before I looked up the word “phlegmatic.”  I was informed it meant, “Having or suggesting a calm, sluggish temperament; unemotional or apathetic.” 

That described me to the T,  and, after another nap and a couple aspirin,  I discovered “phlegm” was one of the four “humors” that, according to ancient medicine, governed human health, vitality, intelligence and personality.

That also made sense, because when you can’t breathe and aren’t getting enough oxygen you do develop a sort of calm. There had been several occasions for sarcasm that I completely missed, after I got congested.  It wasn’t that I didn’t know sarcasm was suited for the situation; I simply couldn’t think of any.

However when I traced the roots of the word back to the roots in ancient Greek I became very tired. The root was from, phlegein, “to burn.” How could a bright fire come to mean a dullness? The aspirin was wearing off and I felt sweaty and very tired, so I took another nap. 

When I awoke I bounded from bed, certain I was better, but after around five false starts I crawled back into bed to reconsider the subject of phlegm.

It turns out the word “Phlegm” has even more ancient roots in the “Common Tongue” of ancient Europe, Indo-European.  The ancient word was “Bhel” and it basically meant extremely bright and white. It gave birth to some words that seem logical, such as “blaze”, “blanch”, “blush”, “beluga” and “blitzkrieg”.  However the word “blind” takes some thinking, as it seems the opposite of white, though of course white light can be blinding. Things get downright difficult to comprehend when you consider the fact :”Bhel” was also the root of words like “bleak” and “black.”

It was too much for my diminished IQ, so I took another nap. Awakening after midnight drenched in sweat, I decided a fever was good for dull wits, as you get some strange thinking sprinkled in. It made perfect sense to me that a bright blaze could make black charcoal, so the words blaze and black could be related. After an aspirin it stopped making so much sense, and I could only guess that some ancient suffix was involved, in the way we can use a suffix to turn “sun” into “sunless.”

I was wide awake in the dead of night, as I had slept so much during the day, so I thought I might compose a blog entry. I couldn’t even think of a first sentence. Weather maps made no sense. Instead I just wandered, and eventually got back to the subject of phlegm.

I’d wandered back to ancient India, which oddly has some words that are the same in Ireland. Perhaps there was some sort of pre-Tower-of-Babel civilization, some golden age more civil than we can imagine, that allowed a common tongue to be shared. But I’ll leave that for people with higher IQs and lower temperatures.

Back in the time of the Sanskrit scholars they may not have known of oxygen or oxygen tanks, but they did know air was necessary for fire, and for life. Air was “Vayu” and life was “Prana”, and they were so deeply interconnected it was impossible to separate them.

This made perfect sense to me in the dead of night. When you have pneumonia it is very obvious air is connected to life. I don’t need to sit cross-legged, and to learn how to breathe out of alternate nostrils, to know that.  I’ve seen it, been humbled by it, and am sick of it.

However I came across one ancient tale that tickled me. It involved a situation where all the various Hindu gods (with a small “G”) wondered who was most important to humans. So, each in turn, withdrew from humanity, (or one particular Job-like human,) to see how he’d fare.

[Don’t get me wrong. I believe there is only one God (with a capital “G”) and it irks me when Christians get too compartmentalized with Father-Son-Spirit, or distracted by Saints and the Virgin Mary. However it also irks me when psuedo-scientists miss all the wonder of clouds and sky and wind, thinking they can reduce it to jostling molecules of Nitrogen and Oxygen and H2O and some trace gases. Only when such scientists get old does their wonder return, and do they confess that even after a lifetime of study of something such as the AMO, they have barely scratched the surface. They are on the verge, in their wonder, of giving the AMO the status of a god (with a small “g”) for the AMO is beyond human understanding and control. Yet these same scientists, when they were young, called the ancients “quaint” when they called a breeze a sort of little angel or small god, called a “zephyr”.]

However the Sanskrit scholars of ancient times take the cake, when it comes to giving various powers of nature god-status, and picturing them as beings with wills of their own. (Where we speak of our “mind”, they have a god with a bull elephant head, prone to occasional fits rut-madness.)

In any case, all these gods began withdrawing their influence from man, and man suffered but survived, until it was the turn of the god of air.  He only started to stand up, and not only did man reel, but so did all the other gods. All the other gods then conceded that (not including God with a capital “G”), the god of air was most important.

Without Vayu there is no Prana. Pneumonia makes this disgustingly apparent. All your study, all your learning, all your projects, are put on hold.  At first you say, “when I get better” work will resume. Then, when five days sees you not better but worse, you start to say “if I get better.”

That word “when” takes too much for granted, and when it is replaced by “if” a writer is reduced to the proper point of humbleness. After all, it is an amazingly arrogant profession, (if you ever bother to think about it), and can use some cutting down to size.  It is important to remember you can’t even begin, without the mercy of a healing Creator.

Which leads me to a final mystery. Considering breathing and air is so important to the production of clearly articulated thoughts, while are so many young writers chain smokers?

I curse what that habit did to my lungs, but glad to say I feel better today, and able to make even pneumonia interesting.




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