Saturday, December 17, 2011

Genetic Germaphobia

As a kid I always knew my Grandpa Jim was….different.  He was a poet/songwriter through and through, a traveler who never stayed in one place long enough to cultivate deep roots.  Grandpa Jim took a respite from his wanderings for a few years in my young adulthood, during which time I got to know him better. I can still hear his slow voice in between cigarette puffs, “Did you know that you are talking to the smartest man in the world?” “Take Grandpa’s advice….and you’ll do great, kid.”  His guidance was…interesting to say the least, “People are filled with germs I tell you… crawling all over them inside and out…that’s why I drink a swing of this each day (he pointed to a glass bottle that stunk like rubbing alcohol)….so I can kill the worms I breathe in the air…”

I remember one day when I stopped by his trailer to check on him and the overwhelming scent of disinfectant nearly knocked me over.  When I asked my grandpa what he was cleaning he said, “Some weirdo lady at the coffee shop was coughing all over the place….so I gave myself a good wash down with Lysol spray and a rag.” Of course I explained to Grandpa that was toxic but he wouldn’t listen.  How can you argue with “the smartest man in the world”?

A week later I had popped in to say hey and Grandpa noticed my runny eyes and stuffy nose.  “Are you sick?” he asked with hesitation in his voice, slowly closing the door so that only a crack remained. I explained that my allergies were acting up because the pine trees were pollinating but he must have thought I’d contaminated him somehow because later that day he put an open cup of bleach in front of a fan to “sterilize the air he was breathing.” It’s amazing he lived to be 79 and died from emphysema and not his many attempts at self-preservation.    

I suppose the apple never falls too far from the tree because my father is a 2nd generation germaphobic.  As a teenager, I remember being quite annoyed by my father because he wouldn’t order an ice cream cone from MacDonald’s.   “You just don’t understand Jamie.” “That kid in there handles the money-the same money that has circulated through thousands of hands.” “Then he grabs a cone, fills it with ice cream, and does he hold it by the paper protector like he is supposed to?” “NO!”
Dad was terrified that his cone would be contaminated and he’d be so preoccupied worrying about the diseases he was contracting that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his treat.  Instead, he forever ordered his ice cream in a cup and then did his best to restrain himself as I attempted to enjoy my ice cream cone in peace.

I remember hearing the retelling of one MacDonald’s in particular that had a mess of ketchup all over the counter and no soap or paper towels in the bathroom.  When my father brought it to the attention of the teenaged employee wearing a t-shirt stained with French fry grease, the kid just shrugged, preceded to hand my dad his Big Mac order, and said: “Oh I know, we’ve been out of soap all day.” My dad nearly gagged and bee-lined it for the exit, leaving his meal behind him.  It was funny how relieved he was when that same restaurant burned down six months later. Yet his germ phobia didn’t die with it.

Dad hated to touch the menus at any restaurant and would often use napkins to read them or lift BBQ bottles to squirt sauce on his sandwich.  He would never play checkers with me or that little peg game at Cracker Barrel because “You never know who handled them.” If he ordered ice tea and someone’s hand at the table touched the rim he’d use an alcohol wipe or ask for a new glass.  As a kid, watching him squirm was fun.  I’d take a sip of his drink and tell him so when his glass was nearly empty or I’d touch him with an “infected” finger with my checker playing hand after he had already washed his hands in the bathroom.

As an adult, living in my own home with my own family, I sometimes forget how germ phobic he is.  But the other day I got a reminder.  After I first posted the blog, Gobbles Gone By, I got a phone call from my dad requesting a word change:  

 “Well, I’m not comfortable with the statement- But there was no room left in the driveway so we had to park in an empty lot next to my parent’s house.” “I don’t want people to think we live so close to a lot full of dog poop.”    “I don’t even want to think about the fact that I live next to a lot full of dog poop.”
I had started to laugh, “Alright so what would you like me to say so you’re not so freaked out?”
“I’d like it to read-we had to park in an empty lot down the street from my parents’ house…”“Jamie, don’t laugh!” “I’m serious!!!”
“I know Daddy!” “It’s just the way that you are.” “That’s what’s so funny!”

Looking back at memories from my Grandpa Jim and my father I knew there was no way I was going to let myself become like them…Until today….

My family and I were at this awesome light’s display at Tara Plantation, a lawyers firm in a gorgeous two-story house on a beautiful piece of property.  Naomi was tucked in her hip hammock happily taking in the scene of thousands of Christmas lights and moving figurines.  
Upon entering I noticed this very nice gentleman shaking the hands of each person walking in. I can only imagine how many hands he shook in the last three hours but for a moment I was grateful that my one hand was supporting Naomi and the other was holding on to Jenna’s Elmo harness so I would be socially exempt from touching him. 
The first room we toured offered cookies and punch.  While waiting in line, Naomi gave some especially adorable grins to the other guests and of course, she kicked gleefully when they fussed back at her.

“Oh! What a dolly!” one lady said. “She looks like the Gerber baby on the baby food jars.”

"Thank you." I smiled back and unconsciously I found myself taking a couple steps backward as they moved in closer.  Before I could escape, I was surrounded by two elderly ladies and a gentleman that could have been anyone’s Grandma and Pop-Pop.  

Now I know that many of our snowbirds in our area are desperate for child contact.  I’m sure many of their children, grandchild, and great grandkids are all still in Connecticut or someplace but I just don’t understand how people think it is acceptable to touch a stranger’s baby.  Naomi gives the slightest coo and people are trying to tickle under her chin, hold her hand, “steal” her nose, and then to my extreme HORROR, the gentleman attempted to kiss my little girl on her hand.  HELLLO!!! Do they not know the variety of illnesses that are out there?

In an attempt not to kill the Christmas spirit that was echoing throughout the Martha Stuart like plantation I opted for “Thank you for your compliments, please excuse me.” I flew across the room and found my mom feeding Jenna a frosting covered sugar cookie and a cup of red # 5 masquerading as fruit punch. I tried to look extra busy adjusting Jenna’s Elmo leash/harness.  Just as I stood up my mom was pinching Naomi’s cheek and “beeping” her on the nose.  Normally I wouldn’t have cared. She’s my mom after all, but she had shaken the hand of the man at the door who had been shaking the hands of God Only Knows Who…...

Mom's have an instinctual protection drive and mine instantly overrode the polite portion of my brain. My mouth shot it out before my brain could stop me, “PLEASE stop touching Naomi and putting that door greeter guy’s handshake germs all over her head!”  My mom blinked at me.  My brain raced over what I had just said and I was shocked at myself.  "DID I REALLY JUST SAY THAT OUT-LOUD?"

“Wow, I’m so sorry mom…I didn’t mean for that to come out like that!” “It’s just that guy touched how many…”

My mom just smiled at me.  “It’s alright Jamie.” “I know how you are.” “You’re just like your father.”

“What?” “No, I’m not!” I started to protest, but out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the same Naomi-face-touching trio from earlier starting to make their way over again.  Before I knew it I was down the hall and casually concealed behind a giant Santa statue. I handed Naomi a chewy in an attempt to quiet her cooing. 

“Just like my father?” “I’m not as bad as my dad!” I reassured myself as I discretely washed Naomi’s hands, cheek, and nose off with a baby wipe. But images kept flashing through my mind of myself using hand sanitizer after touching the gas pump, using a Ninja-like balance to push restroom doors open with my shoe, strategically choosing the first bathroom stall because statistically, it is the least filthy, mastering aerial #1 to avoid touching the toilet seat. 

When had I crossed over and became my father?  

The truth is that each of us has a bit of our parents in us.  No matter how hard we may swear when we grow up we will never do THAT, we often find ourselves surprised one day to step back and see our dad or mom staring us back in the mirror. Today was my day.  I may not be as bad as Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, or that guy on Munch, but I am defiantly affected by the idea of cross-contamination in public places.  If I give it a few years it may develop into a full clinical case of third generation Germaphobia, but right now I’m just trying to be safer than sorry. :)  

FYI: Top 12 Places You Risk Getting Infected 

(Courtesy of Dr. Mercola ) 

1. Your kitchen sink: With more dirt than a typical bathroom, and over 500,000 bacteria per square inch in the drain, your kitchen sink basin and faucet are teeming with germs.

2. Airplane bathrooms: Never mind the fecal bacteria that’s commonly found on door handles and faucets, the worst part is the tornado of germy particles that’s spewed into the air when you flush the toilet.

3. Wet laundry (even after it’s been washed): A dirty pair of underwear contains about a gram of fecal matter, and this gets spread around the entire load of laundry very quickly. It’s not until you dry the clothes that the germs are destroyed.

4. Drinking fountains: All public drinking fountains are loaded with germs, but those in schools -- which contained anywhere from 62,000 to 2.7 million bacteria per square inch of the spigot -- were the worst.

5. Shopping cart handles: While you’re innocently shopping for groceries, your hands are grasping a handle covered in saliva, bacteria and fecal matter from dozens of people.

6. ATM buttons: Think about how often these buttons are touched everyday. Now think about how often they’re cleaned. This explains why one study found an average of over 1,200 bacteria on the average ATM key.

7. Your handbag: Women, your purse is likely overrun with thousands, and even millions, of bugs like salmonella, E. coli, staph bacteria and more. Makes you think twice about putting your handbag on the floor, and then plopping it down onto your kitchen counter, doesn’t it?

8. Playgrounds: Your typical children’s playground is covered in bodily fluids like blood, mucus, saliva and urine.

9. Mats and machines at health clubs: Yoga mat? Elliptical machine? Think bacteria factory. Such mats and cardio machines have been found to contain antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria and more.

10. Your bathtub: Bathtubs contain more than 100,000 bacteria per square inch, some of which you have just washed off your own body.

11. Your office phone: Phones get coated with germs from your mouth and hands, to the tune of over 25,000 germs per square inch.

12. Hotel-room remote control: This little remote has been used by hundreds of other people, and likely wasn’t thoroughly disinfected in between.

1 comment:

  1. My dad says that the fact that I gave you this list is confirmation to some of you that I have arrived at being a bonafide third generation germaphobic.