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PRIVATE LIVES : Les Miserables : Unlike Women, Men Basically Enjoy Being Sick

July 10, 1988|MARGO KAUFMAN | Margo Kaufman is a writer who lives in Venice.

WHY ARE MEN such babies when they get sick? My husband, Duke, has just announced for the third time in 12 minutes that he doesn't feel well. "You married him in sickness and in health," chides an inner voice, so I stop writing and hurry into the living room where he is lying in state on the sofa. "What's wrong, honey?" I ask, bracing for an up-to-the-minute bulletin on his Battle With Disease.

"I have the sniffles," he says in the sepulchral whisper used to broadcast golf tournaments and state funerals. Duke looks up at me with the plaintive stare of a wounded mastiff.

"Oh no!" I exclaim. This can't be the same man who fearlessly flung a rattlesnake from a trail when we were hiking, the man who has his teeth drilled without novocaine. My maternal instincts are immediately inflamed by the absence of machismo. "Let me get you some aspirin," I say.

"Do you think that Vitamin C would help?" he asks.

Actually, I suspect that nothing--and that includes vitamins, garlic, Contac or Extra-Strength Excedrin--helps a sick man as much as the knowledge that a busy woman dropped whatever she was doing to go and get it for him. "Lie still," I say. Not that he has the slightest intention of moving. "I'll run to the drugstore."

"It's comforting to have you with your little Florence Nightingale cap on ministering to me," Duke says. With his last ounce of strength he reaches for the remote control and switches on his favorite channel--Channel 18--where he watches two giant Koreans clad in shorts and garter belts wrestle in a sandbox. I am tempted to remind him that Magic Johnson played in the NBA Championships when he had the flu.

But I know better than to spoil his fun. In my experience, I have discovered that unlike women, men basically enjoy ill health. But before I risked the wrath of half the population by putting this in writing, I got some expert opinions.

"When I get sick I feel great," confesses Glen, 38, a lawyer. "My God, nobody can expect anything of me when I'm sick. I can just sit around and catch up on magazines and programs I've taped on the VCR, and of course sleep. And I also can take an Empirin and codeine to make myself feel better without feeling like a drug abuser."

Dr. Alfred Coodley, emeritus clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at USC School of Medicine, suggests, "For a certain portion of men, who throughout life have needed to be tough, competent individuals who can deal with everything, illness provides a convenient escape from life. He no longer feels obligated to maintain that defensive, powerful, independent attitude. He has a legitimate opportunity to, in a sense, cop out. 'It's OK to be childlike because I'm sick. I'm entitled to be taken care of because I'm sick.' "

"I don't know how I got the sniffles," Duke moans.

"You swam in the ocean on a very cold day," I reply, composing my face into an attentive bedside manner. I know better than to suggest that he sat in a draft. Men like to believe their illness, like a war wound, was honorably gained.

"The water was unusually cold for this time of year," he agrees. Then he gives me a news update: "My sniffles are getting worse." He sneezes once or twice to make sure I get the message.

I get the message. I run into the bathroom and bring him a box of Kleenex. Then I run into the bedroom and bring him a quilt, then a pillow, the television listings, a trash can (used tissues are multiplying on the carpet faster than germs), and a cup of Red Zinger tea. "I'm very grateful," Duke says. "As you know, I have the sniffles."

Of course I know. I wouldn't be this obliging if he were well.

"Getting sick is one of the little tests men have for women," says Robert, 35, a screenwriter. "If a woman doesn't perform well in your sickness, it will never happen." What's a good performance? "A full mother. My last girlfriend did the right thing. When I had a cold she immediately bought some chicken and made some soup. She even had her own concoction of hot water, lemon juice, and honey, which she called Sickee Tea. The important thing about Sickee Tea is that you don't make it yourself; someone has to make it for you."

Robert explains that "a woman who behaves badly is a woman who tells you that when she is sick, she never gives in, she goes out and does anything. You don't want to hear that a woman is more macho than you. I had a girlfriend who actually said, 'What are you doing in bed? Let's go to a concert.' She didn't understand that I was really kind of enjoying my cold. I thought it was something that we could share together. She didn't see it that way. She thought I was a wimp."

There is a limit to how long even the most understanding woman can cater to a man who lies in a pool of sweat (a man who is too sick to take a shower, but not sick enough to see a doctor) without contemplating euthanasia.

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