Allergic to New York

 

Someone must have been telling lies about Chris N., because, without doing anything wrong, he woke up one morning and found himself arrested. His arms and legs were like lead; his head was submerged in the pillow. His labored breaths didn’t seem to bring in enough oxygen. Struggling to his feet, he discovered that he was physically unsteady, massively hung-over without the usual flashes of previous nocturnal embarrassment. This continued for hours, then days. After weeks without change, Chris N. went to see the doctor.

This is how I look back at the moment, when, four years ago, I stepped through the threshold of a mysterious illness. Like Kafka’s Joseph K., I woke up one morning and found that everything had changed. My life became a narrative of paranoia, suspicion, urban neurosis, something Kafka might have conceived if he’d lived in the age of lymphocytes and HMOs.

I was, simply and inexplicably, sick — one of what the Center for Disease Control estimates to be more than 500,000 Americans who have acquired an amorphous collection of debilitating symptoms that have no apparent cause. The explanations I would hear for this ranged from a neurochemical imbalance to a psychological obsession to a world that has become too toxic for an increasing number of the population to exist in.

This last paradigm, embraced by a growing number of physicians and scientists, has been called an “allergy to the twentieth century.” Though increasingly widespread, the malady itself is not new. Medical designations for it run from Sir Richard Manningham’s 1750-era diagnosis of neuromyasthenia to the eighties catchphrase Epstein-Bar syndrome to also-rans like major acquired brain dysfunction, post-viral syndrome, and England’s more impressive-sounding myalgic encephalomyelitis. While the more recent “chronic-fatigue-immune-dysfunction syndrome” gestures toward the mechanics of the illness, it too fails to account for the subjective experience. As this inchoate sickness awaits a sufficient name, it wanders among the populace, like Guy de Maupassant Horla, an ineffable, invisible monster, possibly a paranoid delusion of the age, possibly something much worse.

 

Lest I appear melodramatic, let me flesh out the word fatigue. As I walk out of an office building into the orange light of an autumn afternoon I realize I can’t see. Or rather, the line connecting my eyes with my brain is short-circuiting. People on the crowded street glide and bounce by like dark impressionist blurs, and even when, with some effort, I bring the sign for 50th Street into focus, it still makes no sense. It might as well be in Cyrillic. I have to stop and rest twice on each block, and by the time I reach Park Avenue, I’m ready to lie down on the sidewalk. I shuffle down the subway stairs, and try to slip a credit card through the turnstile slot. Then my ATM card. Then I remember it has to be a MetroCard. I get home and pass out in my clothes. When I regain consciousness, which I do every three hours, it is an oxymoronic state of wired exhaustion, a jittery enfeeblement in which eyelids flutter but limbs are paralyzed. The next morning, I pull myself out of the sweat-drenched sheets and trudge back to my workplace, where I will repeat, with minor variations, the preceding day of labored movements, fumbled speech, pinball thought patterns, and a general sense that I am watching the entire world through a TV with poor reception.

If this is fatigue, its relationship to workaday weariness is as Sartre’s nausea was to an upset tummy. I have been tired before. This is not tired. I have pulled all-nighters, gone without sleep for days, and experienced the usual range of altered consciousness typical of a Berkeley grad with bohemian affectations. This is different. I am not depressed or malingering, and I remember my previous self as being rather happy and ambitious. In short, I am not the prototypical forty-something career woman who starred in the yuppie-flu narratives of the eighties. I’m the Gen-X media wiseass who used to make fun of her.

Until four years ago, I had filed the phrase chronic-fatigue syndrome somewhere in my brain between year 2000 bug and Olestra, vaguely interesting science-page topics I’d skim on my way to the movie listings. As it happens, both the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health recognize the syndrome as a distinct illness but stipulate a diagnosis of several, mostly subjective criteria: fatigue with a clear onset, not due to exertion or relieved by rest, hampering work and lifestyle, and lasting for at least six months. It took only days for me to notice I was rather intensely hampered, but I was slow to arrive at the designation “chronic fatigue,” which is an illness of negation, diagnosable only through the process of ruling out other illnesses that have the same initial symptoms – illnesses like, oh, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and cancer.

But while I was in no particular hurry to venture down this road, my symptoms were impossible to ignore. Worst of all was the mental dysfunction: the inability to read sentences, remember names, find le mot juste– skills that tended to come in handy in my occupation as a writer. I went to the doctor for a complete physical, and two weeks after leaving blood samples, with a follow-up appointment scheduled in just two days, I found a message on my answering machine: “…I’m a senior physician here at the clinic and was just going back over some laboratory test and”—he paused for along breath – “thought that, ah, you might want to touch base with us. Came me tomorrow at the clinic.”

The next morning, I called back with, let us say, a great deal of interest. The doctor informed me that everything in my blood work was normal except for one thing: my Epstein-Barr titers were off the scale. He didn’t believe in this trendy malady Epstein-Bar syndrome. The mere presence of the Epstein-Barr virus – which 90-percent of humans have by age 20 – isn’t a reliable indicator of any illness. But given my symptoms, and the fact that my EBV antibody levels were so high, “if anyone has it,” the doctor said, “you do.”

He then told me this was nothing to worry about. Epstein-Barr doesn’t necessarily do the system any harm, they don’t think. It’s a mellow, nineties sort of incurable, aggressively replicating virus. And since my symptoms were mostly subjective and lacked any physiological signs, I received what I later learned was the typical prescription written by stumped “providers” in the HMO world: antidepressants. The pills weren’t to “make me happy,” the doctor said, but to correct whatever chemical imbalance was causing all those problems. I was so relieved he hadn’t tendered me a death sentence that I asked no questions, took the slip, and merrily jumped aboard the Zoloft train. I wasn’t cured, exactly, but the symptoms—largely matters of perception and cognition – seemed to lesson. Although easily tired, I was functional and more or less okay until the next fall when I had a full relapse, with worse symptoms than before.

Again, I embraced canonical medicine for an explanation: It was drug tolerance, perhaps, or premature seasonal-affective disorder. I was prescribed an additional antidepressant—trazadone—to help with the disturbed sleep. I regained an adequate level of functionality that—with the distractions of work, a busy social life, and steady alcohol consumption—was enough to keep me going through the year. But then, shortly after a long bicycle trek, I had the worst relapse of my life: haywire vision, brain fog, labored breathing, muscle weakness, devastating fatigue. And this time, the illness seemed unsowed by my refusal to accept its existence. It was a miracle: I was completely cured of denial.

Like a conservative who has been arrested, I was converted to a new medical liberalism. I began to research my chic new disease. Books on the subject were plentiful, and the many doctors who used the term chronic-fatigue syndrome without scare quotes all agreed that the illness was distinct from depression, intersecting with psychology but suggestive of a fundamental imbalance in the immune system. The illness may start – wrote many of those who believed it was an actual illness – with exposure either to a routine virus, a bacterium, or a chemical toxin. And for some reason, the immune system, once turned on, fails to turn itself off. It keeps on producing antibodies to attack a no-longer-existent enemy and becomes too weak to fight off otherwise harmless pathogens, after which the body goes into a widespread, multisystem funk.

Since this is an incurable funk, the treatments I found tended to focus on a careful rebuilding of the body’s immune system and on preventing relapses through rest, diet, stress reduction, and avoidance of allergens and toxins. Careerism was ill-advised, nihilism encouraged. Because, while the individual prognosis wasn’t too sunny – with luck, you’ll be one of the 25 to 60 percent who improve after a few years – the global implications of this new epidemic were even worse. Among the several books I found that proposed a darker conclusion, the most convincing was by one Dr. Majid Ali: its title, The Canary and Chronic Fatigue, said it rather succinctly: People suffering from this generalized physiological collapse are canaries in coal mines, the more sensitive beings whose immunological crises – brought about by a new, intolerable level of environmental and dietary toxins – warn the rest of the population of an impending disaster.

Ali’s prognosis of global doom was corroborated by a number of his colleagues. One of them, the distinguished Berkeley microbiologist Howard Urnovitz, offered a dire and quite convincing illustration of our toxic future. It’s called Gulf War Syndrome. The Gulf War, argued Urnovitz, was nothing if not a toxic environment: hydrogen sulfide form the Kuwaiti oil-well fires, experimental nerve drugs, the diluted sarin gas that blew over encampments, Scud rocket fuel that rained down from destroyed missiles, malathion pesticides, the depleted uranium used in armor-piercing bullets and shells, and multiple vaccines. The last were given to soldiers up to eleven at a time, a toxic event that compromised their systems even before the desert onslaught. Urnovitz estimated that these soldiers encountered 30 years’ worth of toxic exposure in three months. Gulf War syndrome, he said, is simply an acceleration of what will happen to the rest of America years from now.

Apparently, the toxins bearing our doom aren’t exotic like Scud fuel and depleted uranium; they’re our national fiber: new clothing, new carpeting, cleaning products, cosmetics, computer printers, copy machines, mothballs, particleboard, paint, plywood, pesticides, perfumes, deodorizers, cigarettes, food preservatives, vehicles – the fundamental building blocks of our post-industrial society. As Dr. Ali reminds us in his book, we live in an ever-thickening miasma of chemicals whose subtle long-term effects are not yet understood.

In 1945, the U.S. annual production of chemicals was 8 million tons. By 1985, it had risen to 110 million tons, or 950 pounds of chemicals for every U.S. citizen. Supposedly, the civilian version of Gulf War syndrome will differ only in specifics. When our immune system is overtaxed from clearing these toxins or from viruses, repeated antibiotic use, or stress (all nineties specialized), it can no longer fight off opportunistic infections. According to Urnovitz, ordinarily harmless pathogens like microspordium, mycoplasma, and the Epstein-Barr virus become active in the body and possibly damage nerves, trigger Parkinson’s disease, garble speech centers, and cause neuropsychiatric disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and other assorted buzz-kills.

Happily, Urnowitz does not see this future for everyone. Ninety-percent of Gulf War veterans returned without Gulf War syndrome, which Urnovitz believes is good indicator of the proportion of the population that can handle that level of toxicity spaced over 30 years. Ten percent of us, then, can expect this sort of multisystem tilt in our lifetimes. A figure I found from the National Academy of Health and Sciences was slightly less sanguine, suggesting some 15 percent of Americans now experience “increased allergic sensitivity,” some to the point of watery eyes or headaches, others to the point of total disability.

 

Dragging myself to work each day and struggling through my daily reading, I started to find signs of the coming apocalypse everywhere. I began to collect news reports about the children in the South Bronx, one out of every four of whom carries an inhaler. I noticed a newspaper story about a woman who sued her 23rd Street employer over making her allergic to New York. I began to find Dr. Ali’s prediction utterly convincing. Even as metaphor, the illness was irresistible. This is how society will go out, not with a bang or a whimper, but a long, slow yawn. Bouncing around in this light-speed, modem-driven, toxin-powered world the human animal will simply wear down. Just as the word processor ushered in an epidemic of carpal tunnel syndrome, so has the information age begotten a truly modern illness – something part physical, part mental, imbued with paranoia and misinformation and copious Internet sites.

Proud though I was to participate in my generation’s epidemiological Woodstock, I still held out hope that I might recover. I called the Manhattan office of Dr. Ali – whose book was subtitled Reversing Chronic Fatigue – for an appointment. He turned out to be a fiftyish Indian man with sad, compassionate eyes and a distinguished bearing, practicing out of a ground-floor office on the Upper West Side. Degrees from the Royal College of Surgeons and other prestigious-sounding healing centers – he’s the president of the American Academy of Preventative Medicine and an associate professor of pathology at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons – hung on his walls. Slumped, watery-eyed — and for some reason, predominately Hasidic — people filled his waiting room.

Dr. Ali talked over my history with me. He ordered tests – for allergies, glucose levels, and food intolerance — and mapped out a treatment program. The goal, he said, was to restore my immune system and revive my energy levels without antidepressants or other drugs – chemicals that further jumble the body’s normal healing process. Dr. Ali introduced me to a new way of looking at illness and health.

My own uncontrolled experiments over the years had taught me a fundamental cause-and-effect model of dysfunction and relief: Eight Dos Equis + two tequilas + eight Marlboros = hangover, for which there is aspirin. From this model, I and probably most Americans assign a one-cause, one-treatment paradigm to most aliments. In mainstream medicine, this also remains the dominant mode – one drug for one illness. But rather than mainstream medicine’s allopathic Star Wars approach – essentially a quixotic attempt to eradicate all the microbes, viruses, and toxins in our bodies and the world – alternative physicians like Dr. Ali concentrate on keeping the immune system strong enough to live among the pathogens.

Dr. Ali started me on a holistic course of treatment. In addition to weekly allergy injections and vitamin shots, my regimen included about 21 nutritional supplements a day – everything from glutathione to coenzyme Q10 to stress-formula protocols. I was to drink a special protein powder and about a gallon of water a day. Most important, I was to begin a special diet. Food allergies, Dr. Ali told me, play a central role in weakening the immune system, as do foods that trigger intestinal yeast overgrowth – candidiasis – that infects the blood, slows down cerebral activity, and impede the stomach from absorbing crucial nutrients. The avoidance of both allergens and yeast-feeding foods was crucial.

I was supplied with a list of dietary contraband. Wheat was a prime offender, along with corn, barley, oats, potatoes, white rice, peanuts, almonds, and most other grains, because they are converted so quickly into yeast-feeding sugars. Oranges and most fruits were out because they contain high amounts of fructose. Milk, eggs, and many other baking staples were out because they are common allergens. Green peppers, red peppers, and tomatoes were out because they are “nightshades.” Mushrooms and other fungi were out because they are in the same fungal family as yeast. Anything processed was out. Red meats were discouraged. Farm-raised – rather than wild-caught – fish was out, as was farm-raised chicken. Everything that contained any of the above was out. And everything was out if it wasn’t organic. Water was okay—if it was carbon-filtered or from a spring. Whatever foods remained, said Dr. Ali, could be consumed only every other day at most. “Sea vegetables” were fine.

Restaurants, obviously, were no longer an option, and visits to the supermarket were brief. And then, when I was six months into the diet, a “colonic therapist” informed me of even a few more foods to watch out for: beats, carrots, and other “hybrid foods,” plus any remaining fruit – all of which contributed to the candidiasis. She also suggested that I might be among the 10 percent of people who are gluten-intolerant, which would rule out all beans, all grains, except millet and brown rice, and all soy products. Suffice to say there was a lot of organic kale in my future. Because I was beginning to lose interest in life’s pleasures, dietary discipline was not a problem. The hard part was having to spend so much time thinking about food. Adherents to this diet seemed to require a sort of obsession, cult knowledge of its mysterious rites. I realized this had reached a new level of pathology when, following Dr. Ali’s suggestion that I enhance my spiritual life, I resumed attending Catholic Mass. One morning on the way up to receive Communion; I suddenly realized that if my faith in transubstantiation wasn’t absolutely sure, I was about to eat a great big wafer of wheat. I might be in bed for days!

Months passed without substantial improvement, and Dr. Ali said he shared my frustration. But together, he and I were almost always able to determine a cause for a particular exacerbation. I would simply have to be a bit more careful. The problem with this hyper vigilance is that it leads to a strange sort of gullibility. Okay, I feel terrible today: is it that soup I had Tuesday? The rainy weather? Is it those five minutes I spent in the newly painted bank lobby? Is it the tension of asking for a raise? A strange dream? Ions?

I wasn’t getting better. Dr. Ali prescribed chelation therapy—an IV infusion of hydrogen peroxide. He escorted me into the “IV room,” a small waiting room with five other people, mostly in their early forties, who were also attached to IV drips. I was handed a consent form that required my signature. So accustomed was I to disbelief suspension that as I scanned the form’s list of possible side effects, I half expected to find “temporary invisibility” among them. I gave my signature and sat down among the others. The conversation was not unlike that at an AA meeting, with the sob stories and insistence to newcomers that the program “really works.” There I sat, chatted politely, and, like some futuristic junkie, took hydrogen peroxide into my veins. It gave me a slight cough and tightness in the chest. On subsequent visits, I would try ozone as well.

I failed to show significant improvement. After six months, Dr. Ali deduced that I was experiencing the “spreading phenomenon” common to CFS patients. I was becoming sensitized to the many other fumes and chemicals that I could previously tolerate. I was developing an allergy to …everything. Needless to say, my experience of New York City changed markedly after this diagnosis. Just about every stimulus in the city became a potential trigger for a fogged brain, weak muscles, or the shakes, and I would never know exactly which stimulus it might be. I would hold my breath in the bank, dash past dry cleaners. The open doors to the Saks perfume department became a Sarajevo checkpoint. Elevator conversations ceased as I tried not to breathe in the cologne of my colleagues. Because I was determined to prevent the downward spiral of joblessness and disability, I started to ration my energy and schedule my trips outdoors. While I was lucky enough to be able to keep working, my ill health and commitment to keep it from worsening had removed everything else.

As Mark Twain once said, “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.” I took this advice to its extreme. I couldn’t drink or inhale cigarette smoke, so I didn’t go out at night. I got exhausted walking down the block, so I didn’t exercise. I couldn’t eat anything, so I didn’t go to restaurants. My sex drive had vanished, so I didn’t have a girlfriend. My life had become a binary toggle switch of work and sleep. I started to think of myself as deeply weird. HI, I’m Chris, and I do nothing. Can I get you some kelp?

Around this time, Elaine Showalter’s book Hystories came along to further rattle my self-image. Hystories proposed that my illness and Gulf War syndrome were physically manifested cases of mass hysteria. The ailment’s sufferers, many of whom, I suspect, had suddenly found someone they would wish the illness on, received this predictably. But I actually greeted the theory with a certain degree of longing. If only she were right! To my mind, psychotherapy and antidepressants were infinitely more amicable than complete abstinence from life.

Sadly, I believe that chronic-fatigue and Gulf War syndromes are, and will prove to be, physiological illnesses that have only a tangential relation to mental dysfunction. I also find the spectacle of an English professor’s dismissing the hundreds of physicians doing research, taking case histories and treating patients to be a perverse extension of postmodern hubris – reminiscent of those who blamed tubercular personality, ulcers on repressed anger, and multiple sclerosis on lunacy. Still, I have to admit that seeing an illness I’d been fighting for three years grouped alongside alien abductions and satanic abuse didn’t exactly raise my spirits.

Inevitably, as I continued on my dour regimen, I found myself looking into psychological factors, examining potential stressors, and limning the psychic fissures that may be triggering this sleepy cry for help. There had to be something in our present culture that abetted this pandemic. David Shenk’s book Data Smog struck a nerve with its claim that the proliferation of cell phones, news media, email, and so on is causing a mass overdose, a toxic overload of information. A 1996 Reuters Business Information study revealed a new modern malady, information-fatigue syndrome. The pathologification of modern life started to become irresistible to me. I live in New York City, one of the most chemically saturated places on the planet. I work in the media, white-water rapids of information. And now it seemed I was among the genetically ill equipped for the information age. One evening when I saw Dr. Ali, he suggested I move out of New York.

 

After that meeting, I went home and lay on my back in the darkness, unable to move, pondering images of myself banished by allergens and toxins to some New Mexico commune where I would sit around in some kind of Aztec smock and sip Spirulina. How poorly this disorder fit my tastes! Previously, I had always quite enjoyed the world’s toxins. In fact, they were usually the best part. I felt cities were the only place to live, and cigarette smoke the surest indicator of vibrant social life. This trendy new disorder might have a certain sociological cachet – the medical expression of slackerdom – but I was having a terrible time wearing chronic-fatigue syndrome well: It is quite difficult to make a complete lack of puissance seem cool.

My friends tried to help, nicknaming me the Chronic, but it was no use. The problem was that the whole chronic-fatigue-syndrome culture was in fundamental disagreement with my years-established way of being. The restrictive life, the holistic outlook, the desperately upbeat and black-humored writings of CFS Web pages became their own form of toxin. I was, essentially, alienated from my own subculture of sickness. This came to a head in late spring. I went to a West Village lecture held by another cult of homeopaths, many of whose progressive views on health and fitness jibed with the research I had done myself. During the lecture – whose topic was moon cycles and your health – the bandana-clad health guru digressed for a moment to announce to the crowd of 50-odd people that man had never landed on the moon, that it was just a government propagated hoax. He then shared the news that several women each year were made pregnant without sperm, merely by some errant dust or pollen. Some nodded, some took notes. I decided to give mainstream medicine another chance.

At my reunion with my HMO doctor, when I told him about the preceding eleven months, he said, as I expected he would, that I was making myself sick. My doctor, who was also an oncologist, informed me that the demographic with the worst prognosis for cancer was educated middle-class white males – probably because they obsess about the illness, try too hard to control it. I insisted, as I always had, that my problem was not depression, that the only sadness or “blue mood” I was aware of had to do with the nearly complete dissolution of my life. I was happy, became sick, and then was unhappy. My doctor proposed that my symptoms could be what psychiatrists call somatic manifestations of depression. Apparently, certain subsets of depression – a chemically induced imbalance of the entire body – include almost exclusively physical symptoms which, when combined with a steady consumption of Better Nutrition magazine, could result in a nearly complete panoply of CFS symptoms.

Since the alternative viewpoint meant moving into a plastic bubble, I was more predisposed to believe him this time. Two years ago, the Times of London reported that there is evidence, which has been presented by the Royal Colleges, that if a patient firmly believes that chronic-fatigue syndrome is a distinct disease, it will hinder his or her recovery. It took some new antidepressant scrips—having weaned myself off the old ones – and began to rethink this thing yet again.

The mind-body schism is being increasingly debunked in medicine, and any illness, especially a chronic illness, demands and examination of possible underlying or exacerbating psychological components. Doctors like Ali, Weill, and other luminaries of the new medicine advise a more complete integration of mind and body. They counsel us to watch for warning signs, to preempt the total systemic collapse, to listen to our bodies.

But can’t this be taken too far? Listen to your body – or crank its volume up to ten – and odds are you will not like what it has to say: My heart is beating. This chair is really hard. I’m aging, that pain in my chest is radiating to my left arm. In general, the fewer conversations I have with my body, the healthier I feel. Of all the side effects listed for various drugs the doctor prescribed – from nausea to tremors to confusion to stroke – by far my favorite one is “a false sense of well-being.”

A false sense of well being. That’s a side effect? All I want out of life is a false sense of well being. Perhaps my body would benefit from a bit less attention on my part. I accepted the doctor’s offer to refer me to a psychiatrist. If he couldn’t transform uncommon misery into common unhappiness, a la Freud, perhaps he could at least turn an allergy to the twentieth century into what Iggy Pop would call an “ordinary bummer.” He couldn’t. After a long interview, with many questions, detailed answers, and careful monitoring of my affect, the psychiatrist pronounced me mentally fit. I was not, he said, depressed. Which meant I was sick. Which was depressing.

 

I’ve long held the firm conviction that what doesn’t physically or emotionally cripple me for the rest of my life. So though I have improved over the years – whether due to time’s natural healing, a foray into Chinese medicine, or downsized expectations – it’s next to impossible for me to look at this whole experience as a positive one. I would gladly trade whatever insights, maturity, or personal growth the past four years might have yielded for a clean bill of health and the time back. Still, if I’m going to be stuck with the life lessons, I might as well heed them.

One of these lessons came, cornily enough, from the East. In my meanderings through the holistic world, I saw an acupuncturist whose diagnosis was the Chinese equivalent of something with the transmission: low chi. In addition to taking the course of Chinese herbs, I was to begin meditating. He said one of my main problems was that I think too much. I began to think of overbought as a toxin. In fact, I began to integrate all life issues into the idea of toxins: polyurethane, drycleaner fumes, fear, hatred, self-pity. To some ways of thinking, alcoholism is not just a disorder of the body but a rift in the soul, one requiring careful scrutiny of everyday life. I began to examine my illness in the same light. I became to examine my illness in the same light. I became more attentive, less analytical. I started to witness my own life.

Fatigue, in all its guises, has wrought a new rhythm and disposition to my life. But I’m not sure that I like it. Whatever it is I’m suffering from appears not to be fatal, and I do have relatively good days. But I can’t push myself, which greatly tempers my ambitions. I go to sleep around 10 p.m., which tends to cut into my social life. I tread, eat, and breathe with caution, and there is no break from the moderation, which I believe should be pursued only moderately. I have become fatally moderate.

Years ago, a worldly friend of mine once opined, “There is nothing worse than half a buzz.” I now know exactly what he meant. As I said goodbye to my twenties, I said hello to a smaller, slower existence. It’s a common enough complaint, I guess, but my maturation process was defined by a generalized renunciation. I began a life of half a buzz. Today, I am alive and functional. I am employed and off pharmaceuticals. For some reason – ions? Barometric pressure? – I still can’t function on rainy days. For some reason, I still act very strangely on less than nine hours of sleep. And I still look at foods, solvents, and certain pieces of office furniture with a kind of creeping suspicion. In a sense, I’ve come to believe everything and nothing, which is appropriate for an age of recovered memories and Internet conspiracies.

But I’m not as despairing as this might suggest. In a year and a half, I will greet the new millennium. I’ll make toasts and resolutions. I’ll relish whatever buzz I am allowed. My mood, I predict, will be one of guarded optimism. Because no matter what happens, I’ll be welcoming e a century to which I’ve not yet proved allergic.

1998