If there's anything worse than a bunch of women sitting around talking about their ailments, it's men sitting around discussing theirs. I know because I just spent a week doing exactly that with a dear friend, who has what is typically referred to as "a cold."
The conversation, which was conducted through a series of long-distance emails and phone calls, took illness to an art form. It began on Saturday when the first urgent call came through.
He: "Not to sound alarming, but I'm not well."
Me: "Really?" (Registering immediate concern.) "What's wrong?"
He: "Where should I begin? My throat is scratchy, and that's not all. I'm coughing."
Me: "Coughing too? Sounds ominous."
He: "And let's not forget the nasal congestion."
Me: "Never. Nasal congestion is nothing to sneeze at. Sounds like the common cold."
And that's when the conversation took a nosedive, and came to an abrupt halt for about two minutes during which time I heard heavy breathing, some wheezing, followed by a sneeze that could be felt all the way from California to Connecticut.
He: "There's nothing common about my affliction. Let me assure you, this isn't a cold. It's something much worse -- something with complications. And my throat is raspy. Can't you hear how raspy it is? By all rights, I shouldn't even be talking."
Me: "Good idea. Let's not talk. Drink plenty of fluids, and check with me in the morning."
The next day, an email arrived. "I can't speak, so I'm writing. If I slept an hour last night, it's a lot. My vocal cords have gone into complete shutdown. It could be a rare disease, but I wanted you to know I'm still here."
On Monday, he called again. "If I slept 20 minutes, that would be an exaggeration."
Me: "It's amazing that you're still alive," I responded empathically.
He: "Barely, I'm wiped."
Me: "You need to take a nap."
He: "I can't. Napping interferes with my nocturnal sleep. I need to stay awake."
Allow me to digress: This man -- my wonderful friend -- is a doctor, which adds a touch of frivolity to the entire scenario. He's the same person who considers any displays of attention-seeking neurotic overindulgences.
Me: "How's it going?" I dared to ask when he called on Tuesday.
He: "If you saw me now, you wouldn't believe it. I'm not myself. I look wan, not to mention I'm exhausted. I've gone through two boxes of Kleenex. If I slept 10 minutes, it would be amazing."
Me: "Are you pushing the fluids, and eating chicken soup?"
He: "There's no one here to cook for me. And anyway, chicken soup is a tale from the old wives. We in the medical profession don't consider chicken soup a viable option."
Me: "It's been proven that chicken soup has healing components. If I were there, I'd make you some. My chicken soup works miracles."
He: "You shouldn't be here. I'm contagious. Aren't you afraid you'd get sick?"
Me: "I was speaking hypothetically."
He: "Oh, so you are afraid of germs. I never knew that about you. I am, too, but I can't let on, or my patients would never come to see me."
Me: "Are you feverish?"
He: "I don't know. I don't own a thermometer. But I could be. My head feels lukewarm. I'm never lukewarm. I'm usually tepid."
Me: "Perhaps -- and I realize I'm stepping out on a limb here by suggesting this -- might you need an antibiotic?"
He: "I prefer healing the good old-fashioned way. I'm a rugged guy, you know. Real men don't do drugs."
Me: "I was merely saying that if you do have a fever, this might be more serious than we think."
He: "I thought you said I have a common cold. Is it something worse? My pulse seems a little weak. What are you picking up?"
Me: "Nothing. You're overreacting."
He: "What do you think I am, a hypochondriac?"
Me: "Go lie down. In the meantime, take some aspirin, and I'll call you back tonight."
He: "Tonight is a long way off. Anything can happen by then."
Me: "What would you suggest?"
He: "Maybe you can FedEx me your chicken soup recipe. And throw in some Ring Dings and a Sports Illustrated magazine -- the swimsuit issue."
Me: "I thought you were sick. The swimsuit issue can be hazardous to your health. It could tax your immune system."
He: " I already have one foot in the grave, so what's the difference?"
Me: "I'll be sure to send flowers, but I'm not coming to the funeral. You might still be contagious."
He: "Not funny."
Me: "I'm really sorry you're feeling so sick."
He: "It's not a big deal. As you can tell, I don't like making a fuss over illness."