The Flu—A Personal Review
The flu. The name sounds mundane in this age of modern vaccines and miracle drugs. For most people, if they think of it at all, it is only as a reminder of that annual rite of passage: the late fall or early winter vaccination.
But it hasn’t always been such. We should not forget that at one time, and this was not so long ago, the flu—influenza as it is more properly recorded—killed more people than any other illness in modern history. The 1918, pandemic killed fifty million people world wide, fully three times the number of folks killed in all the years of World War I, which was one of the most terrible wars in all of human history.
The 1918 flu was the great equalizer, afflicting a whopping 25% of the US population. Incredibly, so many Americans died in that one year that the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by twelve years.
The 2012 flu is nothing like the 1918 flu, of course. A few people have died, perhaps even a few more than usual, but it certainly isn’t creating a panic in the streets. Nonetheless, it is out there. And I am living proof of that.
I was vaccinated against the flu in the late fall. A few weeks ago it nearly killed me.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. I was never anywhere near death, though the idea had a certain appeal at the worst of it.
It began one evening with achiness in my legs, which quickly spread to include every muscle in my body. Such myalgias are common with the flu. What was different this time was the severe and unrelenting nature of the aches, as if I had run a marathon. Uphill. In a cold rain. Ever fiber of my being became involved before this little piece of misery was over. The soreness was biblical, with an absolute sense of being not just ill, but afflicted. And this was before the headache, which came on within a few hours and was its own little torture. At times, my head positively swam between nausea and a vice-like pressure. Misery abundant.
I took to chanting: “there is no pain there is no pain there is no pain there is no…” For brief moments, this mantra seemed to clear not only my mind but my body too, and I would lie still for minutes at a time, afraid even to breathe for fear of breaking the spell. In this fashion I passed several barely tolerable days, though in the nights my tormentor seemed to redouble her efforts. She seemed a jealous bitch, determined to keep sleep from me.
The early mornings, 2-6 am, were the worst. I couldn’t get comfortable and tossed constantly. Sometimes I got up and showered, which somehow seemed to relieve the worst of it, if only for a few moments. I took four showers in ten hours on the third day.
My appetite was not affected, though eating was a chore because I was always so tired. And I never had any trouble breathing, no pneumonia, no cough, no belly pain. Nonetheless, the flu engulfed me, occupying every part of me in the worst way. I was hot, with perhaps a moderate temp of 101-102. The world alternated between burning and freezing. And just wiggling my toes spun my head till I felt like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. I couldn’t imagine a world in which head splitting misery wasn’t at the forefront of existence.
By the morning of the fourth day, the aches had begun to recede, though it took another thirty-six hours for them to dissipate altogether. The headache was a bit more tenacious, especially at the back of my head and top of my neck. I wondered for awhile if I might have a bit of viral meningitis. If so, I appear none the worse for it.
I never tried tamiflu. Possibly that antiviral agent might have reduced the intensity and or duration of the illness. I dunno. I did drink constantly, as staying well hydrated in such a circumstance is key. Rest and relaxation are the other orders of the moment, though, to be honest, I had no choice but to stay horizontal. I couldn’t function for the best part of five days.
The verdict: A difficult five days, but tolerable enough in the end. If you gotta be sick, you could do much worse than this little piece of genetic material. As a deadly illness, I give the 2012 influenza a flimsy 2/5 Stars (uncomfortable, potentially life-threatening, but a pale imitation of the real thing—though as close as I care to come for the foreseeable future). In terms of the more mundane flu we have come to know over the past decade however, this was right up there—a real whopper.
Give it a pass if you can.
The drive in from Naples was beautiful. We passed through a number of quaint towns, all impossibly built on the steep hillsides. Can’t imagine the ancients deciding “I want to build here.” Except, of course, for the views. Life affirming, those views. Oh my god.
The road itself is a twisting, windy drive. Not too bad though, from a car sickness standpoint. I don’t get carsick, but I don’t like riding cliffside either. This was not really that. Only cliffside for short distances, and the speeds are mostly under thirty since there are so many cars on the road. The occasional passing around a slower vehicle can be a little heart stopping however. The drive over from Naples took perhaps ninety minutes, only about ten minutes of which might be called ‘edge of my seat oh-my-god my entire life flashed before my eyes’ dizzying. Most beautiful and not to be missed. You will want to keep your eyes open (you will likely have other chances to see the views along this stretch however, since if you visit Pompei you will have to drive this stretch going and coming).
The hotel, La Sirenuse, is remarkable. This is one of those rare hotels that is a destination all by its lonesome. Our first impression of our room: bright, colorful, comfortable, and “I guess I can spend a week here, if I must.” One thinks a year would not be long enough. And wait until you walk out on the veranda. Words simply fail me.
Shortly after arriving we walked the 147 steps to the beach and ate lunch at Chez Black. It was raining, the only time it rained the whole week. The weather, so I was told, was the best of any of the conferences to date. I dined on grilled swordfish and a caprese salad with buffalo-milk mozzarella. Scrumptious. My wife had the local whitefish. Again, very tasty. We sat with one of the other participants—Shawna—who turned out to be a food critic in real life. Great fun. She thought the meal outstanding (and the company exquisite I might add).
The opening reception was had that night at Le Sirenuse restaurant within the hotel. Grilled whitefish for the main course, very good. I did not care for the first course, silver anchovies, chilled and pickled. Probably quite good as I noticed many of my companions devouring them, but neither my wife nor I have ever developed a palate for anchovies.
Once again, the dinner conversation was stimulating. Talk of life’s foibles, our excellent hosts, and the writing. Always the writing. It is wonderful to be so fully immersed with like minded folks.
After a good night’s sleep (the mattresses were fashioned with the sleep of the Gods in mind),we headed over for our first experience with the Le Sirenuse breakfast. This alone was worth the price of admission. Four varieties of cheese, cereals of every sort, fruits aplenty (plums, melons of different kinds, kiwi, pineapple, apples, oranges, etc.). The presentation was eye-popping. Clearly, the Italians take their breakfasts quite seriously. You won’t want to oversleep. Perhaps a full stomach predestines a prepared mind.
The workshops are held daily, beginning at 9:00 and running through to lunch, which is on your own. The afternoons are reserved for sightseeing, meeting one on one with the instructors (everyone will have at least one such meeting with their instructor at some point in the week to discuss their submitted manuscript). The workshops themselves are proprietary and I won’t give them away, except to say mine, with Jim Shepard, was delivered with humor, integrity, and attention to the sensitivities of the writers. I will say that each writer had previously submitted twenty-five pages in advance of the workshop, read by all. We workshopped two or three of these each day. My own piece, which I felt pretty good about going in, was gutted to the bone in ways I had never considered. Jim Shepard is very, very good at getting to the underlying themes. He’s like a surgeon filleting away the flesh and muscle, carefully avoiding the vessels, so that when he’s done what remains is not too saturated in blood and is, simply put, beautiful. I learned much. Make that MUCH.
The evenings were spent in merriment with all of our new found friends. A couple of evenings are spent out in town at one of the several excellent restaurants in small groups. I especially recommend La Tagliata, which has to be one of the world’s greatest restaurants. This place is situated on the hillside (more like cliffside) about two thousand vertical feet above Positano. You get there either by shuttle (recommended) or by climbing the steps along the hillside. Be warned. My wife and I hiked the steps and it was NOT an easy climb. It was an hour and a half one way and I thought I was going to die in the middle of it. Two others who started out with us turned back. The view is breathtaking, but this climb is not for the fainthearted in several places.
La Tagliata itself is a delightful family run establishment. Their menu changes daily according to what they are able to pick in their own gardens, so the food is very fresh. Beyond this, you can chose either the pasta or the meat meal. We went twice and had the meat both times. This was served family style and included all we could eat of a large variety of deliciously grilled meats: ribs, chicken, lamb, and many, many others. Highly recommended.
A couple of special nights were spent with everyone together in a spirit of friendship. It would be a disservice to give these nights away, but suffice it to say you will not be disappointed.
Oh, and plan to spend one or two days on either side of the conference in Naples or Rome. We stayed in Rome for two days and then took the train to Naples, where the folks from the program met us. One note of caution, be careful on the train. We had a couple of women try to tell us we couldn’t take our luggage with us to our seat. If we had listened to them, we’d still be looking for it.
Positano itself is beautiful. You will want to spend an afternoon or two visiting the shops in town. And don’t forget to take one or two of the side trips to Capri or Pompei. The Amalfi coast is simply breathtaking. These can be easily arranged. You won’t need a car. You will need your wallet, but it’s all so worth it.
I, for one, intend to go back to this enchanted land, where the pen is mightier than the sword and writers rule the roost.