I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the old-time, low-tech remedies for common ailments and complaints. The little fixes everyone used to use. Things like sipping flat Coke to settle a stomach ache, and hitting the side of a radio to make the static go away. It had been at the back of my mind for a while. And then – maybe after my last bout of computer virus, when I spent two hours on the phone with a tech named Chuck from Mumbai, or maybe after the last commercial for a drug that promised to cure my toe fungus, in exchange for side effects like uncontrollable diarrhea and the sudden desire to gamble – it turned into an obsession.
There’s something refreshingly direct about old-time remedies. They don’t cost much, and you don’t have to worry about weird side effects. You know the substance you are taking. It isn’t some little purple, yellow, electric blue pill which, five years down the line will turn out to have contained something that causes you cancer or a heart attack. Your action is entirely within your control, and if it works, it works and if it doesn’t, you try something else. Mud on the bee sting to draw the stinger out? Gargling with salt water for a sore throat? Putting your head over a pot of hot water to clear your sinuses? Dousing your sunburn with vinegar or iced tea? Reasonable, cheap, straightforward.
True, some old remedies sound pretty wacky. Ever heard of the headache remedy that consists of cutting strips of lemon peel and sticking it on your head? Or filling a sock with kosher salt and holding it against your neck to cure that sore throat? A friend told me about someone who used to burn notepaper and rub it on ringworm. Sounds crazy, but actually, who knows if there isn’t something in the ash that inhibits the fungus? My favorite wacky one is my sister’s remedy for an itchy mosquito bite. You make an “x” in the bite with a sharp fingernail, and spit on it. Well, come on, if you distract yourself from how much it itches to how much it stings when you mutilate your own flesh, why shouldn’t it work? (And if that doesn’t work, you can rub some brown soap on the bite. If you can find a bar of brown soap.) Go ahead and soak six raisins in gin. Do you have any doubt, if you pour enough gin, it will cure your arthritis? For at least a couple of hours? (And there are tons of remedies for the hangover that follows.) Sniffing salt water, as I learned in yoga, does, actually cleared the nasal passages, and is a homemade version of saline solution. And even if eating gelatin to make your fingernails grow doesn’t work, at least it won’t give you some dreaded disease down the line.
As to the low-tech remedies for the machines in your life, having paid hundreds of dollars to cure my computer of something or other, I’m willing to switch it on and switch it off, plug, unplug, hit it on it’s head (this works for recalcitrant children, too, I’m told) before I send it out. M says he used to kick his car. A friend, a gentler sort, says don’t you know your car works better if you have it washed? And I have tried the old whackeroo with my watch to success plenty of times, slapping it smartly against my hand to get it ticking again. Maybe the lowest of the low-tech fixes for computers appeals to me most, and sometimes it works: When it gives you a message like “Your hard drive has encountered a corruption,” smile and walk away from it and come back in a few minutes and everything will be fine. When your smart phone acts dumb and claims not to be able to access the internet, just hit Try Again and believe.
If you have a stiff knee, before you go to the chiropractor or orthopedist, do what my mother always said I should do: “Shake it out.” If your back aches, change your position. Change your chair. Starve your fever. Feed your cold.
What about the big ticket items, like existential angst and depressions? Well, to cure the former, I’d recommend you get a dog, or a cat, or a bird, or volunteer at the food bank. For depressions the surest cure is to put on a little music and – with or without a partner – dance!