A Speck of Dirt Before We Die

I’ve always taken great pride in my fanatic germophobia. I used to believe I was truly Olympian when it came to charmless, off-putting, vaguely sociopathic don’t-breathe-in-my-airspace-because-you-coughed behavior. No more. As a result of our apocalyptic fears of the H1N1 virus, I am no longer the most neurotic germophobe in town. Far from it. The following are some of the extremes to which some readers have gone this flu season in their feverish attempts to steer clear of fevers.

Beth McCall Moore: “I am all about the towels on the floor of the hotels. UGH! I have to spray down the whole place with Lysol — especially doorknobs.”

Dawn Hoffman Price: “I will not use the store pen, especially the pharmacy pen. I always bring my own. When my son figured this out, he would take the store pen and hold it near my hand in a threatening manner.”

Gary R. Cohan: “I use Purell as hair gel.” Gary, it should be noted, is a physician and the host of a weekly, live, call-in medical radio show. We lived on the same floor in the same dorm our first year of college, and it is a testimony to the magic of the human immune system that any college freshman makes it to middle age.

Elizabeth H. Herndon Potts. “Only use shopping carts that have been sitting in the sun; never read doctor’s office magazines; tap (retail) keypads with keys; wash off restaurant tables (and seats) with disinfecting wipes.”

Dana Lorway. “I can get in and out of a public bathroom without touching any alien surface: I use paper towels as hand-guards for the faucets, the paper towel dispenser and the bathroom stall door. I push the flush lever with my foot. You know those public toilets that have the handle practically on the floor? Sorry ladies, if it’s me you see coming out of the stall, you might want to flush with your Jimmy Choos, too.” Dana’s mother taught her these tricks when she was a child; her mother grew up when polio was still common and it was believed a person could catch the disease from a public surface.

Now, Joanne Mahannah offers a warning that should be considered when you contemplate Lorway’s suggestion: “Be careful when flushing with your foot, especially when wearing clogs! It’s really gross fishing your shoe out of a public toilet while balancing on one foot and trying to hold on to a 3-year-old’s hands so she won’t touch anything germ-infested until the two of you can make a break for it!”

Todd Goodyear: “Don’t feel you have to shake hands while greeting people at church. Consider the fist tap or the chest bump instead.” It is worth noting that Todd is the youth pastor at the United Church of Lincoln.

Teressa Corson: “I push doors with my feet and flush public toilets with my feet. But otherwise I try to stay healthy the old-fashioned way: exercise, diet and a little Airborne when everyone around me is coughing and sneezing.”

Finally, a friend of mine shared with me this story. I should note that I do not view it as corroboration of the urban legend that a dog’s mouth is as clean as an operating room. But perhaps it is an indication that neither is a dog’s mouth the Petri dish of disease that some people fear it is. Either way, the story is a reality check that there is only so much a person can do to keep germs at bay.

Lisa Apostle Coleman. “I hosted a group of six ladies in Mexico for the weekend. They were all afraid of the swine flu and the Purell was flying. But they ate everything in sight: street food, local dairy products, fruits and nuts. I put out a bowl of sweet and savory coated peanuts for them to eat all weekend long. On the last day of the trip, we realized that my dog had been eating the peanuts right out of the bowl, too. So much for the germ patrol.”

I applaud all of you. Thank you for making my neuroses more socially acceptable.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 13, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.