The Truth, Mainly - 04/22/1996

The shrinking male brain and remembrances of colds past
by Leon Satterfield

This is going to be hard to believe, so brace yourself: For the fifth consecutive year now, I have the worst cold in the history of humankind.

I imagine it baffles the experts.

"Every year someone has the worst cold," some expert from the World Health Organization (Really Serious Cold Division) must be saying, "but I'm baffled that it should be the same man for five consecutive years."

"What really baffles me," a second expert must be saying, "is that in each of the last five years the standard by which we measure the worst cold in the history of humankind has gone up."

"Those are both very baffling phenomena," a third expert must be saying, "but the most baffling thing of all is that the afflicted man should suffer so nobly, so heroically, so bravely."

I gave my cold to my wife, but only after I'd sacrificially sifted out all the really nasty parts. You can tell she's not suffering nearly as much as I am because she doesn't cry out.

"You should be of good cheer," she says cheerfully. "These colds too shall pass."

"Not my cold," I say, "My cold is without end; it shall be with me always."

"Well," she says, "colds don't get better when you're full of self-pity. My cold shall pass."

"That's because," I explain as gently as I can, "yours is not a Really Serious Cold. The Dispenser of Colds inflicts on each of us no more than we can bear, and men can bear more than women. Why else would my cold have forced my back to go out while your back remains free of pain?"

The first day of my cold, I sneezed so hard I had to wash my face. When I leaned over the sink, I threw my back out. Now every time I sneeze, my back hurts.

"Ah-choo," I say. Then I say "Ow."

My wife laughs.

"You laugh at my pain?" I ask.

"I laugh at your noises," she says. "They're very funny noises."

"There's nothing funny about my back going out when I'm having the worst cold in the history of humankind," I say. "And for the fifth time in five years."

"How would you know?" she asks, thrusting an AP clipping in my face. "How would you remember last year's cold, much less one from five years ago?"

The clipping is from the April 11 Journal-Star, and the headline reads "Men's brains shrink during aging process." The story says the shrinkage curbs "memory, concentration, and reasoning power."

"What," I ask, "have I to do with this clipping, or this clipping to do with me?"

"Try to concentrate," she says. "Try to reason. Try to remember. You're an aging man. Your brain is shrinking. Your memory is curbed. So how can you remember how bad your cold was five years ago?"

"Sure," I say. "Scoff at the sick and infirm. Don't I remember your promising to pat my hand and say 'there, there' in sickness and in health?"

"Yet another figment of your diminished imagination," she says. "A result, perhaps, of your brain drying up and rattling around inside your head every time you sneeze. My brain, on the other hand, stays put when I sneeze because it's still moist, plump, and female."

"Oh, that's very scientific," I say. I can be quite sarcastic when my back is out and I can't breathe through my nose. "Your mystical woman's intuition, I suppose, tells you that."

"Yes," she says, "my women's intuition and the Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine that shows men lose 15 percent of their frontal lobes and 8.5 percent of their temporal lobes by the time they're middle aged. Women, the AP says, 'lose tissue in neither lobe.'"

"What are you going to believe?" I ask. "Quack evidence from a clearly biased MRI widget? Or your daily encounters with this steel trap I call my mind?"

She laughs again. Colds make her all giddy.

"Pish tosh," she says with a cheery cough. "I'd tell you not to be so grumpy, but the article says you can't help it. As your brain shrinks, not only the memory, reasoning, and concentration parts dry up; so does the part that counteracts grumpiness."

"I'm not grumpy," I say, trying to straighten my back as I ease out of my recliner. "Dammitalltohellanyway."

The effort makes me sneeze.

"Ah-choo," I say. "Ow."


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage meaning from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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