Pollen Idyll

Allergens? They’re all in your head.

I am writing this month from prison. Not Sing Sing, not Alcatraz, not Leavenworth, not Gitmo—not any place of stone and iron, searchlights and razor wire, thick-necked guards, and slavering bloodhounds. No, mine is a prison of soap froth and dust motes, tree pollen and cheap cologne, barbecue smoke and quintessence of house cat. Right now, if you were kind enough to visit me in my prison and thoughtful enough to bring me a flower—a big, velvety, lushly fragrant peony, let’s say—it might just kill me. I might begin to sneeze and never stop. My personal physiology is such that a single molecule of peonyness has the power to trigger a tsunami of phlegm. If you find that image distasteful, well, sue me. Life is tough here in Allergy Penitentiary. It’s not for the squeamish. The noises alone are enough to sicken physicians and serial killers alike.

I used to think, when I was a moony teen, that if I had been born during the pioneer era things wouldn’t have gone well for me. I envisioned a wagon-train scenario, my extended family sweltering in a Conestoga, all of them forced to listen to my sneezing and throat-clearing and snorkelish breathing for days, weeks, months (Paw: “Cain’t he quit makin’ them sounds?” Maw: “Hush, now, you know he’s got a delicate constitution.” Paw: “But he’s skeerin’ off the bison. I’m afeared we’ll all starve!”), until finally, one beautiful high-summer morning, they would coldcock me with a wooden bucket and leave me beside the trail. Waking amidst a sea of prairie grasses and wildflowers—a lethal concentration of pollen-spewing flora—I would simply curl up in a ball on the ground, clutching a filthy muslin hanky to my sodden nose as I waited for the coyotes, and then the buzzards, to find me.

Pills, sprays, powders, injections, special diets, cold showers, hot baths, incantations, hypnosis, immersion therapy, aversion therapy, prayer, meditation, herbal tongue drops, activated charcoal nostril implants, living in a sterile plastic bubble—over the years I have tried every remedy I could find, with varying degrees of failure. For a while I had decent results from an inexpensive over-the-counter medication, but then the FDA announced that the product was liable to cause strokes. Personally, I thought the risk/relief tradeoff was reasonable, but they took it off the market anyway. Now, however, I have a small sense of hope that I might receive at least a conditional parole from my dank and drippy phlegmatic cell. Why? Because I recently started going into the bathroom once or twice a day to pour water into my skull.

The technical term is “nasal irrigation,” but that makes it sound as if you’re trying to grow crops in there, which is the last thing I want. I’d be willing to call it “sinus flushing,” but somehow I doubt that would catch on. The technique itself is an ancient, part of the Ayurveda, the traditional medical practices of India. (Interestingly, while ayurvedic has, at least in the West, come to mean “astronomically expensive when purchased at a salon or spa,” a do-it-yourself snoot rinse costs next to nothing.) You fill a small ceramic vessel, called a neti pot, with warm water, then stir in some salt and soda. The pot has a narrow spout which fits neatly into one nostril. Get a nice, tight seal around the spout, then tilt your head and let the contents of the pot flow into your sinuses. This is terrifying, because you are deliberately introducing water into your breathing apparatus, which is a thing that my mother, for one, warned me repeatedly against doing. But once you get the knack, which doesn’t take long, you begin to experience the ayurvedic magic.

Owning a set of human sinuses is like having a Grand Canyon inside your head. You are large; you contain multitudes; your skull encloses this vast, volumetrically improbable cavern, itself made up of chasms, gulches, coulees, ravines, dingles, dells, ditches, and glens. You tilt your head and gravity draws the water in, and then, for what seems like a long time, nothing happens. The water is making its way through your subcranial topography, sluicing and swirling, eddying and pooling, doing what water does. Flowing; cleansing. And when it makes its way to the exit—your free nostril—and begins draining with a soft spatter into the sink, it carries with it all manner of noxious crud. Pollen, dust, mold spores, pet dander, toxic particles from the realms of lawn care, auto repair and household weatherizing, cigarette ashes, big-city grit, goose down, gnat wings, talcum powder, microscopic shreds of scorched paper from all the illegal fireworks you shot off as a kid. You can’t exactly recognize individual elements of this flotsam, but you can feel its absence once it’s gone. Your breath comes more freely, your step is lighter, there’s a lovely absence of tightness in your chest. And your purification has barely begun.

For instance: Three days ago I glanced down into the sink while neti-potting and there was Lefty Lardowski, my old high-school gym teacher, dog-paddling like a ninny. He was tiny, of course, and he was sliding quickly toward the drain, but it was definitely him. When I knew him he was a bitter old SOB, huffy, red in the eyes and face, sucking up to the star athletes and hazing the rest of us for sport. “Squat-thrusts!” he’d scream. “Squat-thrusts till you puke!” He knew who the smartasses were. “I’m gonna get in your head, Johnson,” he’d say with all the alcoholic menace he could muster. “I’m gonna get in your head.” It seems he did just that, and stayed for 30 years. Now he’s gone, and good riddance.

The next day I witnessed several more liquid evictions, including those of two former bosses, an ex-girlfriend, and the entire cast of Hogan’s Heroes. I wondered briefly if running all that salt water through one’s skull would tend to provoke hallucinations, then decided that no, this was really happening. Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz and all the rest of them had been bivouacked up in one of my obscure arroyos for long enough. It felt good to have them out of there. Whether I was actually allergic to them, or to lame sitcoms in general, seemed beside the point.

Yesterday the pace picked up again. I lost the old, drugged-up Elvis; I lost a pastor who understood nothing about grace; I lost the creepy assistant manager at the grocery store where I worked as a carryout boy; I lost people I wouldn’t have dreamed were in there—Richard Nixon, Liz Taylor, Mr. Whipple; I lost half a dozen pharmaceutical sales reps, three allergists, and a dietician; and as I glanced up at the mirror to watch the slender liquid column descend, I lost a couple of versions of myself. One was the sophisticated, medication-loving me who’d never be caught dead doing something as primitive and ridiculous as pouring water into his nostrils. And one was the (literally) snot-nosed kid, the sad, congested, Middle American boy with self-pity issues, lucky in his circumstances and impoverished in his imagination. He’d been with me a very long time, but down he went, trailing his buzzards and his coyotes and his overwrought incarceration metaphors after him.

Good riddance, I thought. Now let’s refill the pot and do the other side.

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson will be selling neti pots out of the trunk of his car at county fairs this summer.

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