Sunday, July 4, 2010


You use too much hand sanitizer. And lest you think that I shouldn’t be casting stones, trust me, if I were casting stones, I’d be squeezing some sanitizer into my own hands when I was done. Stones are dirty. Who knows what kind of germs are crawling around those things?

I was going to start this post by writing, “Hi, my name is David, and I’m a germophobe,” but I thought that was a pretty boring way to start a column about germophobia. I mean, really, I probably wouldn’t be writing a column about germophobia unless I had some germophobic tendencies.

And hand sanitizer is to blame.

I’ve tried pinning the origin of my own germophobia on the sum of all my experiences during my 36-plus years on this planet. For example, I am pretty certain that my pediatrician was, in fact, the boogeyman. (Narrative note: I considered using either the phrase “my childhood pediatrician” or “my pediatrician growing up”, but I quickly dismissed both, because, seriously, when the hell else did I have a pediatrician?).

Growing up, I was particularly prone to ear infections. And by prone, I mean that my ears were infected from 1975 until this past Thursday, so I spent a lot of time in said pediatrician’s office getting prescriptions for amoxicillin. My own kids have had issues with ear infections as well, which has been complicated by the fact that amoxicillin seems to be as effective on 21st century bacteria as, say, a Werther’s Original.

But the fact that I had a lot of ear infections as a kid didn’t make me a germophobe. If anything, it should have inoculated me (figuratively speaking) against having any serious problem with germs because I was at the doctor’s office every other day getting my ears drained. And once the ear infections started fading away in adolescence, I don’t recall thinking about germs much at all.

From 1991 until 1995, I basically lived in a hot zone. You might know it as “college.” Remarkably, I don’t remember being sick a whole lot in college, despite partaking in activities such as chugging a plastic cup of beer after a dirty ping-pong ball has splashed in it. Thus, I can’t pin my germophobia on that either.

So what’s left? As an adult, I’ve had my fair share of colds, stomach bugs, headaches, all of which, of course, was magnified by the addition of children to the equation. But I can’t blame it on the biological warfare waged by my kids, because my germophobia had already taken root by then.

Thus, I have to attribute my own germophobia to the proliferation of hand sanitizer. A decade ago, no one had ever heard of hand sanitizer. Today, my wife has a mini bottle on her keychain and one in her purse. I’ve got a small bottle in the car, one in each bathroom in the house, and one at my desk. I might as well be wearing holsters on each hip. It’s everywhere. And it’s so easy to vaporize every living thing off your hand and rest comfortably when you bite into your sandwich.

Plus, hand sanitizer is good at its job. Not the job advertised on the label. But the job of making you want to use more of it. The more you see it, the more you think about the germs on your hands, the germs that are just itching for you to chew on a fingernail, tap your fingertip against your lip, or, even more delicious, rub your eyes. When you’re at a restaurant, can you even look at a ketchup bottle without wondering how many people touched it before you? For all I know, some kid licked the ketchup dribble off an hour earlier. Not that I ever did that as a kid.

Awkward pause.

If you are somehow able to sandblast that image out of your mind, you think, I’d better sanitize again, even if you’ve already sanitized three times but just want some ketchup for your fries.

Last fall was hand sanitizer’s Oscar moment. Throughout the summer of 2009, all we heard about was the rapidly approaching swine flu epidemic. Estimates of 100,000 dead were pretty common. Young, healthy people were dying. It was going to be like Stephen King’s The Stand. I think sanitizer was added as an option at the fountain drink station at Taco Bell.

To quote Red from The Shawshank Redemption (best movie ever, but that’s a discussion for another day), “and oh my Lord, how the money rolled in.” As you will recall, they couldn’t make the stuff fast enough. Which was hilarious because, as it turns out, sanitizer is completely ineffective against swine flu. It didn’t stop me from coating myself with it. Also didn’t stop me from catching swine flu. The irony is not lost on me.

I’ve started to hate hand sanitizer.

Granted, that might make me slightly insane. It’s like saying I hate the polio vaccine. Or puppies. I get that it kills 99.9 percent of the bacteria on your hands. Too bad it kills 100 percent of your sanity. You’re sort of with me on this. I can tell. You’re thinking to yourself as you eat a handful of peanuts, “I do have a lot of hand sanitizer sitting around.” And then you think, “wait, did I clean my hands before I grabbed these peanuts?”

It’s no way to live.

I know why hand sanitizer is so beloved. It gives you a sense of control over your health, and it’s so easy. And isn’t that what America’s all about? Minimum effort, maximum return? Washing your hands is great and all, but you’ve gotta find a sink, your sleeves get wet, and the towel you’re using to dry your hands is probably so riddled with bacteria that your hands end up dirtier than before you washed them. Sanitizer’s dry in 15 seconds. And it’s got aloe!

But maybe it shouldn’t be so easy. If it weren’t so easy, maybe we wouldn’t think about it all the time. Maybe you’d just wash your hands really well before you ate and then be done with it. And it wouldn’t fan the flames of the OCD issues everyone’s got bubbling just under the surface.

So, I should probably wrap this up. I need to check my stove -- I think I might have left it on.

NEXT WEEK’S COLUMN: I Really Have No Idea What’s Going On.

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