IMG_4570It’s been a rough winter here in Milwaukee.

It started out innocuously; with autumn refusing to let go and temperatures so warm the building next door was able to put on a new roof in mid-December.

But two days after the roof was finished, everything changed, and abruptly. Temperatures dropped to twenty degrees, then even further to ten degrees, four degrees, minus eight.

Snow fell. A lot of snow. Lake Michigan resisted freezing for as long as it could, throwing off steam as its warm water equalized with the cold-as-needles air above it. It finally succumbed, forming thick ice that has extended the beach by several yards. Thinner ice that formed beyond the breakwall broke off into sheets that have been flowing north and south along the coast.

It’s been like this for two and a half months now. We Milwaukeeans have been traipsing around in layers under coats and heads wrapped in caps knitted by our grandmas, carrying our dress shoes in Pick ‘n Save bags. Our gloves are filthy, our scarves are stiff from breathing through them, and once we’re inside and take everything off, we do it with the verve of getting out of a straitjacket.

IMG_4557Then there are the viruses. This year I got my flu shot a little later than I’d planned—the beginning of December—despite warnings from my friend Gretchen that they aren’t good for your immune health.

“But the last time I didn’t get it, I got the flu and it rocked my foundation,” I told her. I’ve gotten a flu shot ever since and haven’t been sick.

This year, however, was different. On January 6 when my stomach seized up, in my head I went over everything I’d eaten the past few days, certain that I had food poisoning. I was barely over it by the time I started to teach on the 16.

On January 18 we had a music gig and played to a packed house on Milwaukee’s near west side. At the end of the night I was exhausted. The next day I couldn’t drink enough water.

Then came the sore throat. The exhaustion. The congestion. Memories of The Flu of 2011 made me twitch. I tried to fight it. But couldn’t.

It took a full three weeks to get over what turned out to be influenza. The whole time, I taught four sessions of Pre-College English, all in a row, from 8:30 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon. The faces of all eighty of my students swam before me as I stood in front of the classroom. Utterly exhausted when it was over, I collapsed when I got home.

As my body tried to recover, those of my students began to falter, one by one, not coming to class for a week at a time either to nurse themselves or their children who’d brought bugs home from school.

IMG_4582Several of my students brought their sicknesses into the classroom with them, along with their wet boots and coats and gloves, clutching boxes of Kleenex. I shut the door to begin the day’s lecture. There was sneezing, coughing, clogged voices. One student asked to be excused; when she came back she said she had thrown up. I reopened the door to let the cooties out.

Which didn’t help. A few days after I could finally breathe, my stomach seized up again, so badly this time that I had to cancel one day of classes.

Being sick became my life. No band rehearsals, no socializing, not even with John. I didn’t write or exercise.

One thing I did manage to do well was to eat like crap: potato chips, four-for-a-dollar ramen noodles, Doritos, chocolate milkshakes from McDonald’s.

I complained about it on Facebook, saying, “Eff-erooni, what a winter so far. Flu once, stomach virus twice since January 6. Hard out here for a pimp.”

Several people chimed in, expressing sympathy, others sharing their own tales of misery.

My friend Terri said, “Just think of it as building a wall of immunities while teaching. My daughter is in her fourth year of teaching elementary music and this is the first year she hasn’t been terribly sick.”

The night before, I had lain awake, despairing because I hadn’t been writing. I couldn’t think of anything to write about. My flu-addled brain was freeze-locked. When I woke up the next morning, I was still despairing.

Then Terri said what she said.

It got me thinking about “building a wall of immunities” as we make mistakes in life, many of them over and over again. The more you’re exposed, the more you learn—if you’re lucky—to never make them again.

IMG_4564I think about this when I get to know people my age who are still making the kinds of mistakes that are the hallmark of our twenties and thirties. Not changing patterns that stopped working for them decades ago.

It also makes me think about the people who aren’t good for us who come into our lives over and over and over again. Folks that Dr. Harville Hendrix say we invite into our hearts because they are like our mothers and fathers, with whom we’ve had tenuous childhood relationships that we want to fix.

This is one lesson that’s been difficult for me to learn: allowing people to get close who don’t deserve to be that close. These days, however, my wall of immunities no longer permits it.

My instincts tell me that Terri and Gretchen are spot-on about building immunity to sickness. Because last year I didn’t teach at all, having taken time off time to write.

There were times I didn’t leave our apartment for four days, because I was thinking and being and taking pictures and playing music and writing essays. It was one of the best years of my life.

The irony is that while I traveled from one end of my soul to the other and back, I had unwittingly weakened my ability to chart the real world. As soon as I returned to teaching and the real world, bam!

At the end of influenza, I sat in my hair stylist’s chair, so exhausted I was close to tears, not yet knowing that the following week I would need to buck up again when Round Two of viral gastroenteritis hit. This is the first week I’ve felt halfway strong in two and a half months.

If the flu vaccine I got in December helped at all, it did so in an extraordinarily limited way. Maybe Gretchen is right, maybe flu shots are worthless, and immunity is best built naturally. I don’t know what I’ll do next year.



  1. My husband is a chiropractor. After an injury that left him flat on his back for months, chiropractic was the only thing that gave him relief from pain and allowed his body to heal. His choice to begin his doctorate to help others began a new chapter in our lives. We learned about the amazing innate ability the body has to heal when interference is removed. We learned that making better food choices really does make a difference. Sugar suppresses the immune system and feeds cancer. Pharmaceuticals interfere with the immune systems’ ability to function properly. We made an educated choice not to have our daughter vaccinated. As she encountered viruses in childhood, she got well again with sleep, good food, herbal and homeopathic remedies. At 27, she has never taken an antibiotic. My husband and I are not on ANY prescription or OTC meds.

    • Whole Foods is five blocks away from our home; through them and the smaller local groceries, co-ops, and restaurants in and around our neighborhood, along with notables like Michael Pollan, I’ve almost completely changed the way I eat. I’m grateful to these people and places. John and I have both taken ourselves off pharmaceuticals our doctors wanted for us, but which we believed were not healthy for us. I hear ya, Gretchen.

  2. Love your writings! Such insight! I will tell you that I have had the flu shot for years, as well as my two boys. None of us have ever attracted the flu virus. Now, my husband experienced the flu the years he did not get the shot, and none of us were recipients of his flu. My husband now gets the flu shot in September/October with the rest of us. I am sorry this was such a crappy year for you. It will get better. The sun will shine!

    • Hi Marilyn, thank you so much for your comment and for reading. I have to admit, I’m a little paranoid now; yesterday I was inexplicably exhausted and thinking, oh no, not again. What I’ve just been through reminds me of 1997, when I moved to Wisconsin from Ohio and got influenza seven times. I need someone who’s an expert to tell me why that happened, but I’m assuming it involved some kind of adjustment my system was making, whether it was to the environment (Wisconsin is wetter than Ohio; swampier), the change in lifestyle, and/or stress. Whatever the case, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the rest of 2013. I hope all’s well with you.

  3. I too, am sorry you have had such an awful time this winter, Cindy…and I apologize for not saying that in the first place! I always find it interesting to hear everyone’s story.
    I hear yours, Marilyn, and I’m glad your family hasn’t suffered with the flu.
    Ron and I have never had flu shots, our exposure is the same as everyone else’s, and I can’t even remember the last time we had a flu virus! It shows that the other factors are important and that their effect on each individual is different. Perhaps eliminating the junk food would have different results next time, Cindy….shot or no shot. 🙂

    • Thanks, Gretchen, and thank you again for being willing to be a part of the story. I have gone through long periods with no flu shot and been just fine. I mean it when I say I don’t know what to do anymore. But I am honestly leaning toward forgoing shots. I want to point out that my diet is normally balanced, organic, and pretty clean. When I’m sick, I lose my mind and go for junk food mostly because I am desperate to taste what I’m eating.

  4. WOW Amen… I’ve been through it this year. Working in the Casino (petrie dish) I get a shot every year. There must be a whole brand of sub bugs out there as I’ve had the flu 2wice in three months as well as a raging head cold… all willing myself to not miss shows lest 18 mouths to care for. It’s sounds like we were walking in time down the opposite side of the railroad tracks. I recall last week when the chills , nausea, aches and fever returned my usual despair just turning into blind rage at it’s unfair choice of a victim.On a more positive not I love your pix of the lake. A a teen I used to spend time at different places walking out and marveling at the amazing moonscapes it creates through waves and winter freezing. Thanks for reminding me about that… the Flu…… not so much but you were not alone in your misery… and apparently neither was I.

    • Hi John, thanks for your comment. I hope you’ve returned to good health. Your work environment sounds even more challenging than mine. This week I had a few more students come in with the flu, then turn around and leave and not come back the rest of the week; it sure is hanging on. So, yes, the lake: it’s been beautiful this year, what with all the snow and ice and cold temperatures. I plan to go down there today with my new camera, start using some of the things I learned in a photography class last week. Just remembered that it’s supposed to rain though…

  5. Was interesting to read this in the midst of a hot, hot summer!

    • Thanks, Julie! I was on a layover in Phoenix this summer, on one of those days that were 115 degrees. That heat jerked our plane all over the place on its descent. Enjoyed seeing Phoenix for the first time.

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