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A store for all seasons

Mike Mozart

This week an army of chocolate Easter bunnies and eggs will be swept from the shelves of our local pharmacy. They will be replaced by signs saying 'it’s allergy season' and a large display of products designed to save us from the toxic effects of springtime. The pharmacy year has moved on, from religious celebration to nasal congestion.

The modern suburban pharmacy is a poignant metaphor of the human condition. Here, in a single boxlike structure, we find everything we fear and everything we hope for: medications for every imaginable ailment and the unspoken promise that good health and well-being can be purchased at the checkout. Of course, if the pharmacy actually did deliver good health and well-being it would instantly go out of business, just as the police would go out of business if they abolished crime. But that’s not something the customers need to worry about.

We could almost live in the pharmacy, and perhaps we do in our minds. The greeting card section alone is a kind of cultural palimpsest. As it changes it spells out for us where we are in the year and what we are supposed to be anxious or excited about. Green for St Patrick’s Day, yellow for Easter, and right now I bet they are getting out the pink cards for Mother’s Day.

The pharmaceutical section has its own relentless cycle of health worries. In summer it’s all sun block and travel sickness pills, in fall the cold and flu remedies come out, and around the holidays the shelves are stocked with indigestion remedies and headache pills. Right now, the pharmacy is telling us to expect allergies, and no doubt they will come. Spring is heralded by Benadryl and Claritin as much as by brightly colored eggs.

Indeed it is a classic chicken and colored egg problem: which came first? It may be that our allergies are triggered in April by the deluge of bunnies and eggs, a kind of subliminal suggestion. We see all those fertility symbols and start sneezing. It’s at least as good as any other hypothesis, but it can only be tested by studying large populations of people who do not celebrate Easter Monday, or who celebrate it in some other way.

Allergies are a bit of a medical mystery. Nobody knows why we have so many of them, or indeed why we have them at all. Why should we have become allergic to natural things that human beings have lived with since the beginning of time? Millions of people are allergic to grass, pollen, house dust, milk or yeast. Millions are allergic to cats. How can you be allergic to cats? Cats have been our inescapable companions ever since the invention of the can opener.

It may be that we've separated ourselves so thoroughly from nature that we can't live with her anymore. This is a good puzzle for people who like anthropological mysteries. Do people in poor countries have allergies? I don't think so. How could they pay for all the tests and pills? Do people who live in the great grasslands of Africa and Latin America have grass allergies, for example? Obviously not. Are there Indians allergic to curry, or Turks allergic to pita bread? It seems unlikely.

Allergies seem to be a product of affluence. Or maybe nature is trying to get our attention, the same way old fashioned schoolteachers used to get our attention — with a smack on the head.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.