Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Mind Those Germs!


I don’t know whether it’s the effect of global warming or the beginning of the slow but sure diminishing capacity of my gray matter, but recently I’ve noticed some habits I’ve developed that even I find a bit perturbing. On their own these little habits are pretty innocuous and at times even commendable. However, as they grow both in frequency and variety, I fear these little quirks are crossing the line that separates the idiosyncratic from the pathological with a medical name.

Take hand washing, for example. This would be viewed as good habit by anyone’s standard. My urge to wash my hands however goes a bit beyond the after going to the bathroom or before handling food routine. Although I’m nowhere near as obsessive compulsive as the mysophobic Jack Nicholson’s character in the film As Good As It Gets, I do have the urge to constantly keep my hands clean.

For example, after shaking people’s hands - especially men’s, since I read somewhere that 60% of men don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet and I don’t want to take chances on which side of the percentage they belong to. If it’s not convenient for me to make a trip to the washroom immediately, I would discreetly fumble in my bag for my bottle of liquid sanitizer for a quick hand clean under the table so as not to seem rude. Whenever possible however, I dispense with the handshaking all together, preferring the superficial brushing of cheeks or kissing the air as a better and germ-free greeting option.

The slide from just a normal hygienic human being to a budding germophobe is more apparent in the increasingly great lengths I go to avoid touching any place where other hands have ventured. I don’t touch the rails of escalators; I use my shoulder to push open doors, my elbow to press down handles and a piece of tissue when unlocking the doors of public toilets.

The handles of supermarket shopping trolleys have the most amount of germs on them they say, so I don’t use my hands to push one but the end of my shirt sleeves or safer still, use the basket which I carry in the crook of my arm. Meanwhile, I have also taken to holding my breath in elevators or anywhere I have to share my space with other people.

I have also consciously avoided munching from bowls of nuts at public places like bars and restaurants as clinical studies have shown that they harbour plenty of bacteria from all the dirty fingers going into dirty mouths and back into the bowls (yuk).

Also in family restaurants I would conscientiously wipe the cutlery with a paper napkin first before using them and, if the waiter is not looking, the plate as well.

Now you might think that these peculiarities are really just manifestations of antisocial behaviour brought on by a fear of the outside world that cease to apply in an environment of trust and comfort such as the home or among friends where question of cleanliness is normally not an issue.

Comparing notes with some close friends, however, I notice that my displays of germ phobia are mere petty foibles of a late starter compared to some of their long-term full-blown neurosis. With one of them for instance, I have to take my shoes off, wash my hands and change into a clean t-shirt before I could come within a few feet of her breathing space.

In public places she would make use of my hand washing moment to also wash her hands but in her case, without having to switch the tap on or off herself as she shamelessly hogs my running water. While sitting at the table in a less than fancy restaurant she would put a paper napkin under each elbow so she could rest her arms on it.

So perhaps I am just getting the tail end of a germ phobia that has been spreading insidiously like a virus all this time. Especially since yet another friend confesses that since a child she cannot touch paper money but has to fastidiously wrap it in tissues whenever she has to handle it. Her reason? She is afraid to catch a deadly disease. Hmm... I am beginning to think that’s not such a bad idea. (Desi Anwar. First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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