Other people’s germs

    Germaphobes of the world unite. For years now, before it became fashionable, I have had what I would call a healthy anxiety about germs and a tendency toward, shall we say, fastidiousness. My husband might have on occasion even referred to me as a paranoid neat-freak. I take this as a compliment. As in all marriages, we have learned to live with one another’s idiosyncrasies.

    My apprehension about germs and slovenly housekeeping habits is more of a hyper-awareness of my surroundings and not a form of OCD. I have never sanitized a grocery cart handle for example, nor do I regularly use hand-sanitizing products. I do wash my hands with regular soap and water frequently, but not excessively. I have never had a flu shot, even after repeated viewings of the movie Contagion. (I study disaster movies as sort of preparedness training.)

    However, if I am on an airplane or a train, and the guy next to me is hacking away like he’s going to cough up a lung, I do get anxious. If it is possible to move to another seat without him thinking I’m doing so because of him, I will do so. Politeness usually keeps me in my seat, however, and that is what will probably be my downfall. On my tombstone someday it will probably read “She died of politeness.”

    I used to think that I alone suffered from a debilitating distrust of hotel bedspreads, but thanks to all those investigative television shows, my worst imaginings have been proven true. Ditto for the remote control, the telephones, and even the hair dryer. These hotel items are all imbued heavily with what I call the Ick Factor. Think about it: If a phone is right next to the toilet …. On second thought, don’t think about it.

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    Cruise ships have recently been getting a bad rap, bringing to my mind a vision of a giant floating Petri dish. But that’s just me. I’m sure that when hundreds of people from all nationalities are crammed together on a large water-bound vessel for long periods of time, sharing all shipboard amenities, there should be no problems whatsoever. Another supposedly fun thing I will never do.

    This fear of being contaminated by dirt or germs is referred to as misophobia, or also verminophobia, or spermatophobia. I prefer not to think of my apprehension as a true phobia though. It’s more like extreme squeamishness. I mean just because I wouldn’t pick up an airplane pillow or blanket even with a pair of sterilized tongs doesn’t really make me paranoid, does it? Not to mention the sticky tray table, the soiled headrest, and the leftover crumbs in my seat.

    The tendency now is toward “touch-free” items that have heavy public usage. For example, automatic touch-free paper towel dispensers, sink faucets, and toilet flushers are some of the latest manifestations of this desire of the public not to come into contact with one another’s germs. You know who you are — I’ve seen you press the button on the hot air hand dryer with your elbow.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes these many concerns and fears of the average citizen and addresses them on its website. One of the many fascinating and helpful recommendations there is to sing “Happy Birthday” to yourself twice during the time you wash your hands, that being just the right amount of time for maximum germ removal. Be prepared, though, for strange looks from family members when you do this. Personally, I prefer any of the songs from The Sound of Music.

    Like anything else in life, moderation is probably the key. None of us wants to be like the Bubble Boy, cut off from all human contact, nor is this a likely option. Whether you use hand sanitizer every 10 minutes or pick up the hotel phone handset wrapped in a hand towel (who, moi?), it’s pretty hard to avoid daily contact with money, restaurant food, gas station restrooms, turnstiles, and airplanes with sick people.

    And the chances are that your own living space probably harbors more harmful bacteria than any public area you are likely to visit (unless, of course you choose to visit my son’s college apartment – then all bets are off). Studies have shown that the average kitchen (sponges, cutting boards, etc.) has more potentially harmful microbes than the average bathroom. All I have to say to that is Ick.

    Kathy Stevenson’s work has appeared in many major newspapers and magazines. Her historical novel The Lake Poet was published in 2001, and she has published two essay collections. In 2010, her short story collection Death, Divorce, and Other Tales of Women’s Liberation was published as an e-book on Amazon’s Kindle. She received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Bennington College in Vermont. She can be reached at KASLF@aol.com.

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