It started with a lesson plan. I was preparing my weekly lecture in classical music and was choosing works of Americana to play on the hi-fi at school. One of the tunes I picked was the theme music for a 1958 movie Western, “The Big Country” — a huge orchestral work with soaring strings, brightly blaring brass (say that six times!) and percussion to beat the band. You know, like the Marlboro Man music. It’s a great piece, a Western favorite. And it’s a good movie: Gregory Peck wades into a range war between costars Burl Ives, Charleton Heston, Carroll Baker, and Chuck Connors.
Illness, though, was taking its toll. I thought I was clearing out a 24-hour flu, but symptoms persisted and worsened, and soon I felt exhausted and overheated, my skin so touchy that clothes felt like sandpaper. I started sleeping round-the-clock, rising long enough to do basic housekeeping and then napping a lot. I took aspirin when I couldn’t sleep, and I added vitamins to what little food I could choke down. A small throat tickle evolved into an endless series of coughing jags that left me sweating and breathless.
This went on for days. Sleep, cough, ache, sweat. The entire time, the exuberant strains of the “Big Country” theme kept playing in my head, over and over and over. It’s as if my illness needed epic movie music to entertain it. I figured, this is what insanity feels like.
It gets weirder. The week before, I’d visited a state park, high in the mountains, where snow covered the ground and pines and spruces climbed the sky. Now, laid low by the flu, every time I closed my eyes I’d see those pines and the blue heavens beyond while “The Big Country” played the soundtrack. My illness had acquired a totally Western flair.
After a few more days, still beaten down and drained by illness, my brain suddenly switched to a Beatles tune, “No Reply.” I wondered why I’d pick such a song, and then I remembered that one of the choruses was, “I nearly died!” That kind of made sense.
Then I started hearing passages from Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” — not the boring graduation-music part, but the exciting cavalry-charge part. Now my flu was being symbolized musically as some sort of grand battle. Just as I got used to that, my brain switched again, to old Leonard Cohen songs — “Suzanne”, “Sisters of Mercy.” Huh? I had to throw up my hands. (They didn’t go up very far. I was sick.)
I was tempted to write off the entire experience as high-temperature delirium. But something interesting seemed to be happening beyond mere addle-brained musical randomness.
On the fifth day, like a pregnant woman, I got a sudden urge for a particular food: I craved a Starbucks banana-strawberry smoothie. So I gathered myself together and ambled (which is as fast as I could muster) to my car, which took me to the neighboring Starbucks, where I ordered and sucked down a smoothie — aah! — and then picked up a few items from the supermarket, including chicken soup.
The soup helped. But now “The Big Country” had re-invaded my mind, once again playing itself endlessly in a kind of broken-record orgy of repetition. And here’s the weirdest part: I didn’t hate it! Somehow I enjoyed the soothing redundancy. Eyes closed, my pines would appear, blue skies overhead, while the strings danced a hoedown and trumpets tooted the big theme.
I began to wonder if I was remembering the piece correctly, so I pulled it up on my computer and listened. Sure enough, I’d gotten it partly wrong, making up the tune to suit my half-cooked brain. But as I listened, something in the music hit me hard, and I found tears forming in my eyes. The sounds — real now in my ears, not imaginary as before — had a touching poignancy and a powerful directness that overwhelmed me emotionally. I began sobbing uncontrollably.
What the heck was going on? Clearly I was unwell. Of course, I could use the flu to explain away the unmanly weeping. But what was so sad about the music?
To begin with, “The Big Country” has a sweep that suggests the big-sky wonder of the West. Then, too, I had suffered unrelenting physical pain for several days in a row (if this is Hell, I’m marching down to the nearest church and signing up), and the narcissist in me heard pity in the music and responded eagerly. Finally, something about the sheer size of the illness (easily the worst flu I’d had in twenty years) leant itself to dramatization. The music sympathized with my suffering, raising it to something heroic. We all go through these experiences, yet the music seemed to be saying that merely to survive it was a form of heroism.
So now I was a hero in my own mind. But for what? I didn’t save the nation or rescue damsels or pull a baby from a fire. Yet here I was, tearfully patting myself on the back simply for enduring.
I was sick, okay? Cut me some slack.
I did prove to myself that I could get through a bad illness on my own. On the other hand, now I can see why married people live longer: at times like these, a caring hand in the home would work wonders. Still, were I married, this week of coughing and sweating and smelling and tossing and turning would probably have gotten me a divorce.
Eventually my flu abated, and “The Big Country” finally died away. I still can’t decide whether it was heroic or merely human to withstand all that pain, especially as it was a solo effort made entirely on my own behalf.
Strangest of all, though, is that I can’t remember how “The Big Country” goes. I’ve completely forgotten the tune.
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UPDATE: A quick guide to the flu