I was out yesterday on a hike with three friends and a dog. Our goal was to summit a small but rather intimidating looking peak in the Angeles Forest with the Candyland like name of Strawberry Mountain. We never reached the summit. Apparently there was a mountaineers route we missed and instead ended up at–of course–Strawberry Meadow, a fairly isolated boulder strewn country just below the northern rampart of the mountain. It ended up being one of my favorite areas in all of the Angeles.
On the hike there I felt a peculiar nip at my thigh. Most of the trail was brush ridden and an hour into the hike my calves were already cut up from the thorns. I found what looked like a thorn sticking me. Only moments later when I found a bee wriggling a few inches from my crotch did I realize it was no thorn but a stinger. I’d just been stung.
I can’t recall a bee sting since elementary school–middle school at the most. It was such a common affair that none of them stand out. I chalked most of them up to the consequences of playing in the fields outside my neighborhood. My greatest fears as a child were imaginary fears. Monsters nabbing me from under my bed, random strangers with hooks finding us in the hills after dark. Blacked out vans filled with men in masks and hooded sweatshirts. The things we should have been afraid of–falling into a thicket of cacti, or having a pack of coyotes nab us when we were too small to defend ourselves–were never too scary and registered merely as concerns when presented. A condition of being an adult I enjoy the least is the admission and recognition that small acts or small mistakes might have life threatening consequences. Half an issue of National Geographic detailed how and why young people don’t really regard consequences the way older people do.
Back to the bee though. When I was stung the four of us immediately had the same reaction–this included the 20 year old with us. Was I allergic? I’m not. At least, the ten or twelves times I had been stung by a bee as a kid never cost me more than a few minutes of pain and maybe a few doses of aloe. But I was a kid then. Maybe in the time since I had been subjected to the great malady of our time: the allergy. I heaved some mud and snow on my thigh. I took two Bayer just in case. The pain went away. Today there is some redness around the sting but not much more. I’m not allergic. As far as I can tell I’m not allergic to anything. I get the sniffles during the winter. It’s possible if I cut gluten from my diet I’d notice a change but since I really can’t say exactly what gluten is, such a sanction on my diet seems extravagant and, in the very least, just silly. I’d heard of wheat allergies growing up, but never gluten (and I know at least a person or two who has an honest to goodness severe allergy to it–severe being the key). But it’s not just gluten. Allergies have become a sort of pall bearer for our passage into adulthood. Good job, good hobbies, good friends, solid five year plan and now an allergy or two to really frost the cake. I know people, myself included, who all of a sudden feel left out when the conversation shifts to allergies, not unlike when clusters of smokers step outside for their bi-hourly cigarette break. There is a lot that troubles me about this. I could go on about our nutritional neuroses but that’s boring enough to me and probably just as much to you and we could probably gather an anthology of literature already on that very subject. No, what troubles me the most, is the shift from being proud of our health and virility to wearing our afflictions like merit badges.
Every so often I meet an old person–for today’s argument we’ll make 60 and over the cutoff–who absolutely blows my mind. They are fit and active. They are doing what they want to do, even after retirement. Their bitterness is well worn. They have stories both sad and fun that they can sling at you like a kid throwing mudpies. They don’t bitch about their allergies. They don’t complain about what is holding them back. My grandmother, if she just calmed down and walked a bit less once she hit 80, probably could have lived a decade more. But walking is what she did. I’m certain I heard her say more than once–probably echoed by my mother–that if a little pneumonia was going to hold her back from taking a walk than what was the point of keeping on living?
I’m hoping it is just a trend and not a generational shift. That we are simply adjusting to the overwhelming amount of scientific data suddenly available to us. I think we’ll pass through it. I can feel the ground swell already beginning. A rejection against the tide of paranoid bullshit and a return to the nearly dogmatic American ideal that whatever we want we can achieve. Work hard, trust your body and don’t eat so damn much.