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Smells Like Serene Spirit

Who says self-medication is a bad thing?

Smells Like Serene Spirit
Photo by John Kachik (Illustration)
If you love pie in the sky—and who doesn’t?—you must experience a presidential election cycle as one long, rapturous tingle. There’s no end to the fantasy-based promises that come swiveling your way, each one plumped up with rhetorical silicone, spritzed with political eau de toilette, and squeezed into shiny black tip-me-over-and-vote-for-me stilettos. These babies are laser-targeted at the most credulous part of your brain: the Sparkle Fun Cortex, a squishy little lobe where nostalgia and sentimentality and elementary-school patriotism unite to create an overwhelming neurological need for cheap, easy answers. In recent weeks I have been told, much to the delight of my SFC, that the war on terror will soon be honorably won and all the troops will be home with their families; that the weak dollar and the subprime mortgage mess are scarcely worth thinking about, not when yet another golden age of American prosperity is within reach of our nimble, hope-infused fingers; that Mother Earth, while she may have suffered a few indignities over the years, is a tough old bird—shrewd and feisty and still kind of a looker, if you squint—who is far from ready for the nursing home; and that 12 million undocumented immigrants can be rounded up and sent back where they came from with no adverse effect on such key economic sectors as lawn care, meatpacking, hospitality, domestic service, and hot-tar roofing.

The candidates have been talking about health care and medical insurance, too, but here their promises have been less ambitious—not so much pie-in-the-sky as Twinkie-in-a-tree-house. It may be that it’s just plain harder to BS about health care, given that illness and infirmity are universal. Sure, there are legislative districts in this country where a candidate could win on an “Eye Lifts for Everybody!” or “Titanium Hips All Around!” platform, but as a national strategy, not yet. Meanwhile, I’ve got good news for all the presidential candidates: You can stop talking about health care for the rest of Campaign ’08.

The American people are way out in front of the politicians on this one. They realize that there will be no consensus on universal health insurance or meaningful cost containment in the foreseeable future—maybe not even in their lifetimes. Are they moping about it? Are they sitting around like Eurotrash, chain-smoking and practicing elaborate shrugs? Or are they—resolutely, without fanfare, in the manner of the Greatest Generation at Normandy—mobilizing their innate American courage and spunk to revolutionize the ancient life-bettering practices of folk medicine? As a matter of fact, they are.

This is not your great-granddad’s folk medicine. This is not a crone in a sack dress gathering weird roots and berries while cackling about the moon. This is clean, modern health care as developed and refined by regular folks. Take, for example, sleeplessness. People don’t count sheep anymore, because their lives contain no contextual arena for barnyard animals. You might as well tell them to count dodos or quaggas. What resourceful, TV-watching Americans do is ferry their minds to dreamland by reciting a gentle litany of terms used in the practice of forensic pathology. Grave wax, tox screen, hypoxia…blood pooling, luminol, lividity…ligature marks, spatter analysis, petechial hemorrhage…rigor, stippling, floater. It’s known as the CSI cure: Can’t Stand Insomnia. And it works. Trust me.

Thirty years ago, when I was getting started in the scrivening game, writer’s block was a huge problem. My peers and I were forever pounding our heads on walls and desktops, chewing our nails to the quick, and stalking around our neighborhoods, glassy-eyed and muttering, terrorizing children and lowering property values. We were trying to write fiction, and in a world whose bookshelves already held Don Quixote, Pride and Prejudice, The Brothers Karamazov, The Great Gatsby, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, it seemed impossible to come up with a good idea. Nowadays I never hear anybody whining about writer’s block. Why? Because writers, and many nonwriters as well, have discovered the folk-medical cure known as the memoir. They’ve learned that all it takes to write a book is a troubled childhood and/or a troubled child, plus a spotty memory. Critics may not view this as a positive artistic development, but in terms of public health, it’s an unqualified success.

It is in the realm of mood disorders that the new American folk medicine is having its most dramatic results. Consider dysthymia, a persistent form of low-level depression that afflicts untold millions of people. While the most potent nonpharmaceutical interventions for this free-floating sadness remain alcohol, tobacco, red meat, and sugar, many brave folk-medical test subjects have found temporary relief via the purchase of a new Lexus, BMW, or Mercedes-Benz.

Admittedly, when it comes to folk medicine, there are Lexus folks and then there are Honda folks, not to mention Chevy and secondhand-Kia folks. And so the American people, being democratic and egalitarian to their very bones, have, in collaboration with gifted chemists and fragrance mavens, underwritten the creation of powerful, affordable mood drugs for the masses. They are sold under the rubric “air fresheners,” but they have the power to spruce up the soul.

Perhaps you’ve noticed, while watching all those crime shows, a staggering number of ads for atmospheric enhancers: misters, puffers, aerosols, evaporators, oil warmers, and blocks of clarified aroma as solid and dense as Velveeta cheese. Perhaps you’ve even said to yourself, as I did, “Whoa. What is the deal here? Does the average American family have an Ed Gein or John Wayne Gacy stuffing corpses into the crawl space? Seriously, how bad could these houses smell?” But eventually it hits you: This isn’t about domestic hygiene; it’s about mental health. And when you stop to reflect on everything America has to deal with—a seemingly endless war, an economy that keeps threatening to go in the toilet, a generation of sports heroes shooting themselves in the hindquarters with steroids and growth hormones (that, ladies and gentlemen, would be the dark side of folk medicine), and so much more—well, it’s easy to see how imbuing your own private sky with Pumpkin Pie® or Dewberry Dreams® or Pure Innocence™ or Angel Whispers® could mean the difference between existential despair and an okey-doke mood.

You see, presidential wannabes, regular Americans don’t expect the moon and stars from you. The Sparkle Fun Cortex is not the only part of the brain they use on a regular basis, and they can generally grope their way to okey-doke on their own. But if they could offer a brief folk-medical consult to the candidates of both parties, it would be this: Lay in a big supply of Country Gumption & Vanilla Spice®—liquid, solid, oil, or spray—and inhale the hell out of it, all the way to November and beyond.

Tragically, contributing editor Jeff Johnson is allergic to every fragrance product in the known universe.

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