“On Kindness for Germs,” by Gregg Sapp

Oct 8th, 2014 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

I’ve always had a very laissez-faire attitude about germs. I feel like it is better to leave them alone than to make enemies of them. Nowadays, it sure seems like most people in our increasingly germaphobic society do not share my tolerance. It looks like biological warfare has been declared, and we are the aggressors.

Today, people not only wash their hands after going to the bathroom; the disinfect them… and not only after visiting the privy, but after turning a doorknob, using an ATM, or pushing a shopping cart. Many folks won’t even shake a person’s hand anymore. I can’t help but take that as an insult. It is as if they’re saying: I don’t know where you’ve been putting your hands, but I suspect it’s someplace filthy.

About the only place where I worry about germs getting is in my mouth. Still, I tried using a germicidal mouthwash once, and it was like gargling with jetliner fuel, albeit with a fresh, minty taste. It may kill germs, but it incinerates the taste buds as well.

When I was a kid, I was taught that to prevent the spread of germs, you should cover your mouth when coughing. By current hygienic standards, though, that isn’t nearly enough. We are now supposed to cough into the crook of our arms. It seems to me that still leaves free floating germs in dangerous proximity to the face. What’s next, then? Should we double over and cough into our crotches?

I guess that some people never learned, as I did in seventh grade biology class, that most germs are actually beneficial. Instead, germaphobes envision armies of pernicious pathogens with fangs, claws, and stingers swarming invisibly upon every porous surface on our bodies. By contrast, I tend to think of germs more like plump, hapless blobs, sort of similar to jellybeans. They’re amusing to watch under a microscope, in the same way it is entertaining to watch dodge-em cars.

What does scare the beejeezus out of me, though, is my own immune system. Every hour of every day, like killer drones, militaristic white blood cells patrol my vital systems, just looking for something to attack. What’s to keep them from turning on me? I sometimes feel like a parasite in my own body.

Kids have the right ideas about germs. It is almost impossible to have any fun without stirring up a few of them. Children’s culture makes many allowances for germs. Take the five second rule, for example. Of course, it is not so much a rule as it is a suggestion, and the likelihood of its being followed is directly proportionate to the desirability of the fallen foodstuff. A Hershey kiss, a tootsie roll, or an everlasting gobstopper have a floor half life more like a couple of days. A fallen artichoke is contaminated before it even hits the ground.

Babies are probably the greatest dilemma for the germaphobe. Even though our nurturing instincts compel us to keep our babies antiseptic, trying to do so is invariably futile? At any given moment, a baby might be wearing a girdle of its own bodily filth… and enjoying it. In honest moments, any parent may wonder: What’s the point of changing a diaper, anyway? Couldn’t it wait until potty training?

The hypocrisy of germaphobes is fairly inescapable. A housekeeper may take pride in the hygienic perfection of the kitchen, but if that person then serves hot dogs for dinner, what’s the point? Given a choice between consuming a frankfurter, which is allowed by law to contain measurable amounts of rat feces, or of sharing a bottle with a skid row wino, I’d probably choose the latter. At least you can wipe the bottle before drinking.

Seriously: would anybody who was sincerely concerned about leaving themselves vulnerable to malicious microbial assault ever – ever — have sex? Or even kiss, for that matter? What does a French kiss accomplish other than open a streptococcal floodgate?

As we all know, germs did not exist before the 1860s, when they were discovered by Louis Pasteur. (Why he didn’t immediately seek to patent them is one of history’s greatest mysteries.) Prior to that, human afflictions were due either to an imbalance of humors, or the result of having pissed off some deity’s sensitive ego. This view of disease made being a physician easy. To cure a humor imbalance, a doctor would simply order a good bloodletting. To appease an offended god, virgin sacrifice, self-flagellation, or at least paying a hefty tithe was usually efficacious. Public health in earlier eras was so good that people seldom got sick until they died.

I prefer to think of germs as guests in my body. Certain rules of hospitality apply, on both sides. I allow for their needs and comfort. They don’t trash the place, raid the refrigerator, or overstay their welcome.

From a planetary perspective, aren’t we all just mere germs – and highly infectious ones, at that? Maybe that’s what global warming is really all about. It’s just the earth gargling.
Defenestration-Gregg SappSince publication of his first novel, “Dollarapalooza,” in 2011 by Switchgrass Books, Gregg Sapp has placed humor, poetry and fiction in Hobo Pancakes, Pudding, Zodiac Review, Imaginaire, Marathon Review, Writing Tomorrow, Midwestern Gothic, and others. He’s just finished a new novel based upon the folklore of Johnny Appleseed.

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