"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, November 26, 2012

Our Paranoia–We Freak Out About Everything!

We all worry.  Some of us worry more than others.  Americans worry, and most worry most non-Americans.  We are a nation of worriers.

Take Fred Pomfret, for example. He boiled his chicken so that all the fat would be rendered and nothing but the tough, stringy meat was left.  He steamed all his vegetables so that no nutrients would be lost and refused to put anything on them like butter or olive oil.  He didn’t care that under-cooked or hardly-cooked broccoli, cauliflower, or squash had no taste..  He turned down grilled squash with caramelized garlic and onions in olive oil; pureed cauliflower with Parmesan  nutmeg, and sour cream; and gave pasta with Italian sausage a pass.

Every sink and adjacent counter smelled of disinfectant.  He bought a special de-odorizing, sanitizing vacuum cleaner that he used every other day on the carpets.  Bottles of Purell were by every door handle in the house, both exterior and interior.  He installed air filters for every room, and spent thousands on a special industrial air cleaner for the furnace.

He worried about indoor air pollution and felt gagged by all the PCBs that were being released into the air from all the plastics and synthetic fibers.  He covered himself up like a Saudi woman when he went out into the sun, went to the doctor’s every week to check out every new spot on his skin, a shaky feeling in the gut, or a bit of unsteadiness on the feet.

By today’s standards, writes Brooke Allen in the Wall Street Journal reviewing Encyclopedia Paranoica (11.24.12) his worries were trifling.  There were much more serious threats everywhere:
[The authors write of the hazards of toilets] When flushing, you’d do well to keep the seat down because toilet water and all its contents are vaporized by the flushing action and settle upon everything in your bathroom—including your toothbrush. A lovely hot bath turns out to be… a foul stew of pathogens, with up to 100,000 bacteria per square inch. But showers are not much better—they distribute the scary Mycobacterium avium.
Dishwashers carry fungi on the rubber band in the door. Kitchen sinks: According to one scientist consulted by the authors, "if an alien came from space and studied bacteria counts in the typical home, he would probably conclude he should wash his hands in the toilet, and pee in your sink." Sponges: Their "damp, porous environment serves as a perfect breeding ground in which the microbes can flourish and multiply until there are literally billions of them." Cutting boards—let's not even go there.
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(Photo from the Wall Street Journal article)

If this weren’t bad enough, the cures for these pathogenic horrors are just as bad:
"The ozone spewed out by [room air purifiers] is more hazardous than any substances they may remove." The overuse of antibacterial products is creating a new breed of "superbugs" resistant to the original agents and to antibiotics as well..Hand-drying machines are actually scary: In one study, "people who used a hot-air hand-drying machine to dry their hands had two to three times as many bacteria on their hands as they did before they washed them."
Some people, faced with increasing environmental and political threats, often turn to yoga and meditation for solace and refuge.  Centering can provide perspective on life and its living.  However, not so:
Even yoga and meditation are not unmixed blessings. The former activity can cause injuries and even debilitating strokes, while the latter has been known to produce a grisly array of symptoms including, according to one expert, "uncomfortable kinesthetic sensation, mild dissociation, feelings of guilt . . . and psychosis-like symptoms, grandiosity, elations, destructive behavior, and suicidal feelings."
Comfort food? Haute cuisine? A family meal? Reservations at Le Bernardin?  Healthy organic alternatives? Wrong again:
We hardly need to be told that Chicken McNuggets and Wendy's baconator triple are to be avoided, but there are problems with "healthy" alternatives, too: brown rice (arsenic), leafy green vegetables (food-borne illnesses), sprouts (salmonella) and soy (possibly carcinogenic).
What is one to do? Well, relaxing a little might be a good place to start; and contemplating your mortality might be a good next step.  It really doesn’t matter if you’re 40, 50, or 70, the end is always in sight and coming up fast; so you might as well enjoy the rest of the ride. Or invent a plausible excuse, as I have done.  “How could I get sick from environmental pathogens”, I reason, “when I have lived and worked in the most befouled, and pestilential environments on earth and survived?”.  I walked through cities and towns of South Asia with no plumbing and raw sewage ran in the streets.  I ate meals covered with the very flies who had lighted on this waste.  I walked through narrow hallways of coughing, suppurating patients waiting at a health center.  I breathed the dust which contained billions of germs, micro-parasites, and the polluted urban air which contained more toxic pollutants than in 100 square miles of Los Angeles.
I have a friend of mine who takes incredible risks with his money.  He takes very few precautions to secure his online accounts, loses his credit cards monthly, leaves vital financial statements lying around in the top of the trash, is cavalier about his passwords, and could care less about issues of privacy.  “Why”, I asked him, “are you so careless?”.
“I am a smoker”, he replied in the most wonderful contortion of logic I have ever heard.  His chances of dying of lung cancer are so great, he reasoned, that he would certainly die before he ever had to suffer identity theft or depletion of his bank accounts.
This paranoia about germs is very American.  Most Americans who visited France a few years ago were appalled that baguettes were sold to you with no more than a little flimsy piece of paper wrapped around the middle – no sanitized plastic bag to protect it from the noxious fumes of the outside world.  Iron skillets were encrusted, nasty looking, caveman blunt instruments which were never washed (ruins the seasoning).  We are amazed at how cavalier people in other cultures are about germs when they can do something about it! That’s really at stake here.  We Americans truly believe that we can cheat death; that there is a solution for every problem; and that if we are careful like my relative we can live well into our 100s.  It is that constant search for practical solutions which keeps our noses in the microbial soup.  With our heads down we cannot afford to look up let alone smell the roses.
I know a woman who comes from a family very much like my relative’s.  She is practical, problem-solving, and unremittingly concerned with better bathroom fixtures, how to remodel a perfectly good sink, replacing curtains with more resistant fabric, improving drainage, circulation; selecting more efficient traffic routes; saving a few cents on every item, on and on.  She is a good American.  She works at solving the little things, and her consumer behavior is far more contributive to the national economy than mine; but her incessant attentiveness to practical detail is just as bad as a paranoiac terror of germs.  It fills up too much space within an ever-narrowing and speeding trajectory to the end of the line.
I personally will take my chances that the roof won’t leak if I don’t replace it; that I won’t get the squirts if I eat a rare hamburger; and that I can squeeze another few thousand miles out of my car.  “What? Me worry?”. 

3 comments:

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