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David Bouchier: A Pharmacy For All Seasons

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How could we live without our pharmacies? At any given moment of the year they tell us what we should be suffering from now, and what we should be worrying about next. So the modern pharmacy is quite a poignant metaphor of the human condition, surrounded as we are by invisible threats. Here, in a single boxlike structure, we find everything we want and everything we fear: good health and bad habits, religion and paganism; the promise of youth and beauty and the certainty of old age. As the cliché has it, all human life is there, and all human weaknesses too.

We could live in the pharmacy, and perhaps we do in our minds. The shelves and displays offer a relentless cycle of anxieties and remedies for those anxieties. In summer it’s all sunblock 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 prepare for allergies. As soon as I step through the door my nose starts to itch. Spring is heralded first by big displays of Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs, and then by even bigger displays of Benadryl and Claritin.

In the spring festivals of olden times our ancestors joyfully welcomed the renewal of life. Our modern way of welcoming spring is just as ritualistic, but less fun—more of a pharmacopeia than a Bacchanalia. We sniffle and sneeze, and head to the pharmacy in search of the remedies that may or may not give relief.

The odd thing about allergies is that they are often said to be caused by things in the natural environment—things that human beings have lived with for tens of thousands of years. Millions of people are allergic to grass, pollen, house dust, milk or yeast. Millions are allergic to cats. You might be able to avoid pollen, but you can't avoid cats. Cats have been an inescapable feature of human existence ever since the invention of the can opener. It makes me wonder whether the environment has turned against us. We should love our planet, and I’m sure we all did on Earth Day, but she doesn’t seem to love us very much. Allergies seem to say that we've taken a wrong turn somewhere, separated ourselves so thoroughly from nature that we can't live with her anymore. If so, nature may be giving us a warning, the way old-fashioned school teachers used to give warnings: with a sharp rebuke, and a smack on the head.

Allergies are a fairly recent invention—the word itself is only a hundred years old. Sigmund Freud believed that they were psychosomatic—an inescapable symptom of modern life. Certainly the pollen count in New York is trivial compared to the neurosis count, so Freud may have been on to something. We may be wasting our time looking for physical causes like dust or cat dander or chemicals. The answer may indeed be psychological—a kind of spring fever brought on by the first sight of the Easter Bunny, the prospect of grass mowing, spring cleaning, dieting, and the onset of wedding season. But the symptoms are real enough, whether they are caused by pollen or paranoia.

If springtime allergies are all in the mind, nothing in the pharmacy can help us except a giant box of tissues. The only consolation is that this too will pass, and a new season will bring new symptoms and new displays of medications. Spring is easy. Just wait for the threats and afflictions of summer.

Copyright: David Bouchier

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.