Guns, Germs and Hypochondriacs

Opposites attract.

Staff Sergeant Kevin L. Zetina, Platoon 2085's...
Staff Sergeant Kevin L. Zetina, Platoon 2085's senior drill instructor, bellows cadence while practicing for Company G's final drill competition. Deutsch: Ausbilder (Drill Instructor) beim United States Marine Corps. Español: Un instructor abordando a los marines estadounidenses. A drill instructor addressing United States Marines / Not Drill Sergeant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They also  marry and discover along the primrose path of marital bliss what the French call, “le difference”.  Love is indeed blind and when a couple is first intoxicated by mutual attraction,  a thick cataract forms over their eyes  – precluding any ability to see things for what they are.  Eventually the X and Y chromosomes recover from their initial pheromone-fueled joy rides and discover the differences in how they approach life.  

Men are loud, visceral creatures who aggressively seek to conquer and accumulate.  Secretly, they are neonates seeking to return to the womb.  Women are more subtle and versatile forms of fauna using their twin skills of nature and nurture to navigate a thankless peanut gallery of expectations. Privately, they just want to be in charge of an all-Italian male model pool cleaning service.

Men are a mass of contradictions. After years of being indulged by their mothers, watching sitcom matriarchs and digesting blatant misinformation from other men, they enter marriages and relationships with a distorted expectation of what their partner must bring to the party.  Apparently, a nice cheese dip is not enough. Men also want their mommy.

Women fall in love with the notion of being in love.  Men appear to them like puppies – cute, friendly and somewhat fragrant.  By the time, they have been taken home, it is too late to give them back and your house smells.    When a woman realizes that her knight in shining armor is really sporting tin foil, wearing dirty underwear and perpetually prone to watch re-runs of the Godfather, a woman can become disillusioned.  This is why you often see mothers and daughters crying at a wedding.  They are not overcome with emotion.  The mother, having drank too much champagne, has just taken their daughter aside and shared with her what life might be like after the honeymoon.  Men misinterpret this matromonial female cry-a-thon as a byproduct of nostalgia when in fact, it is Mom breaking to daughter the news that behind the hunter-gatherer lurks a child who just wants to stay home from work and play with his plastic soldiers.

When it comes to the cold and flu season, roles change with women often morphing into the “drill sergeant “ and men into the “baby”.  A drill sergeant views illness as a temporary setback that must be denied at all costs.  Sickness is a self-fulfilling prophesy and the drill sergeant refuses to acknowlege anything less than blood from three orifices.  Drill sergeants hail from large families and the “suck it up“ school of parenting.  They believe in mud poultices and Mary Baker Eddy.  Babies, however,  are still nostalgic for small country inns, soft blankets and the pulsing heart beat that comes at the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” — anything that reminds them of the nine months inside Mom’s pouch. 

Men become huge infants when they are ill.   The slightest cold or fever is usually the beginning of a pandemic. Women are taught to endure.  This plays itself out each season as men complain to other men that their wives show them little sympathy when they are ill.  Wives must keep the house going even when they are sick and as a result, have contempt for “babies” who cannot get up to get a cup of water, let alone, help with the kids.

Men never really notice when their wives are ill.  “My wife never gets sick” a friend shared with me as his wife was coughing up a lung while we were out to dinner.  Yet, when a man is sick, he reverts to fetal rocking, moaning and deep adolescent dependence.  To a drill sergeant, this contemptible behavior is worthy of court-marshal.

I should have registered the subtle harbingers of  intolerance when my wife and I were dating.  I knew she was a first generation Brit.  However, I assumed the “stiff upper lip” and “it’s just a flesh wound” thing was Monty Python hyperbole.  I assumed when the chips were down or coming up, she would transform into a Florence Nightingale that would nurture me by candle light – holding a vigil by my side of the bed until I was well.

 I had grown up in a household where sickness afforded you a temporary celebrity status. In the home of my mother, there was an unwritten  rule that if you were even thinking of getting ill, you went right to bed, eschewed all social obligations and incubated until the illness either hatched or the false alarm had passed.  My mother would organize around the illness.  She would sit like Mother Teresa, a kind silhouette in the flickering shadows of a night-light – cooling our feverish heads, rubbing our backs and humming soft songs.  In a four-boy family where you had to compete for everything – – food, air, space and attention, illness gave you temporary immunity from obscurity.  I often found myself envying my brothers when they became sick.  The mother shepherd focused exclusively on her one wounded lamb, assigning us to our father who resented the fact that he had to talke care of us. It was clearly better to be sick than under the care of a man who still insisted that the Germans had been invited into Poland in 1939.

The arrival of a major epidemic like chicken pox or measles was greeted with 19th century pragmatism – – the infected child and his brothers were quarantined together in a room until everyone came down with the illness.  “Best to get it all over at once “, She would shrug.  In later years, we would feign illness by placing the thermometer on a hot lamp or enduring scalding hot showers to raise our body temperatures.  We would then moan like ghosts wandering into her room to complain of a headache.

When I became a parent, I would disintegrate into worry when my first child became sick.  Yet, I had been trained by the best in triage and bedside manner.  In a strange way, their maladies made me feel more relevant.  Enter the British wife.  To the British female, illnesses are like road works, a temporary impediment that must be driven around.    Years later, as we brought children into the world, the “Stiff Upper Lip“ school and the “It Could Be Plague“ schools would routinely clash over diagnoses and prognoses.

At the first sneeze, she would say, “it’s just a cold.” I would be certain it was Ebola.  At the sound of a muffled midnight cough or sniffles, I was on the phone demanding access to a pediatrician.  A headache ? Meningitis.  That sore throat could be bird flu.  “The last I checked none of us have been to China” my spouse would respond.  ” We ate Chinese food the other night. Those dumplings could have been cooked by a carrier. “

As more children were born, I mellowed, graduating from burning the pacifier when it fell from their mouths, to wiping it on my pants to just popping it back in their mouths. My spouse, born to a midwife in a small English village, seemed pleased with my progress.  We made quantum leaps such as actually agreeing to carry on with a vacation if one of the children came down with the sniffles or developed a cough.  We braved a dinner party if I felt a little under the weather.  And yes, we did send a child to school before they had been symptom free for 48 hours (that one had me sweating)

I suppose this pragmatic return to 19th century medicine is healthy. But, there are times when my entire family is fighting illness — coughing and sneezing, spreading their germs throughout the house – that I hide, paranoid and alone in my den.  I sit wide-eyed reading – a modern day Howard Hughes devouring a book like, Guns, Germs and Steel.  I may have lost the germ wars at home, but I am staying informed on epidemics and holding out for the day when they reconsider my years of hypochondriacal behavior and shake their heads saying, “My God, he was right“.

That’s usually about the only time my wife declares she needs an aspirin.

Monsters Inside of Me

Image via Wikipedia

Why do they lock gas station bathrooms? Are they afraid someone will clean them?” Anonymous

Growing up in the era of “Walk It Off” parenting, I was never allowed to get too in touch with my hypochondria. Occasionally, I might get my hands on a National Geographic magazine that would feature Amazon explorers, tribes that had never been touched by the outside world or an expedition into the heart of darkest Africa.  To properly frame the perilous nature of uncharted corners of the world, the articles would relate the hazards associated with indigenous people, nasty flora, unpredictable fauna and myriad microscopic predators that could all kill a man – often in bizarre and horrific ways.

I did not just want to know about the 1000 ways in which I could die – – I wanted to witness them.  The fact that most of these diseases, parasites and insidious bacteria were transmitted through unclean drinking water, monkey bites, and unnatural encounters in dark, forbidden places did not matter to me.  I was certain these germs were lingering everywhere.

These were the days before Purell and the bathroom at the local Shell gas station seemed the perfect breeding ground for microscopic predators waiting to hitch a ride home on an unwashed hand.  The public restroom was an essential pit stop for any kid on a long bike ride from home. I tried to hold it to avoid the dimly lit, gray tiled stall that seemed to radiate filth.  Truthfully, I’d rather risk getting caught in the bushes but sometimes nature left you no choice. I was fairly convinced that Lenny, the grease monkey who changed oil and pumped full service gas, had contracted some kind of brain parasite using his own bathroom.  Perhaps it was the fact that he always called me “Bubba” regardless of my repeatedly telling him my name was Mike. It might have been his perpetually filthy hands or his facial tic that would whip his head sideways as if a naked super model was riding by on a unicycle.

I did not appreciate just how microphobic I had become until I “stole” a free venereal disease pamphlet in the local pharmacy, went home and committed it to memory and then proceeded to contract the disease over the course of the next 24 hours.  I rationalized I must have picked up the STD from the Shell station toilet seat – even after using the wax paper seat cover that would always stay in place and then float away mischievously just before you sat down.  I distinctly remember my mother suffocating her laughter as I came clean about my condition.  She suggested that if I did not scrub so aggressively with the Dial soap, I might not have the “burning “ sensation.  I dialed down the Dial and things did improve.  However, I was wary. I understood this ancient scourge could incubate for years and lead to insanity.  Just ask King George III.

Things only got worse after seeing the movie “Hawaii” with Julie Andrews and Max Von Sydow where people stricken with the dreaded tropical disease leprosy were forcibly relocated to the island of Molokai.  The initial symptoms of leprosy might be as simple as a slow to heal lesion or cut.  My scraped knee that would ripped back open each week when sliding improperly in baseball might as well be a motel with a big neon sign saying “ vacancy “ to any tropical disease.  Before I knew it, my fingers would be breaking off on my pencil in geometry class.

Just a few months later, the film Papillion debuted with Steve McQueen starring as the convict determined to escape from French Guyana’s Devil’s Island.  In a particularly disturbing part of the prison escape adventure, Papillion attempts to enlist the help of a local leper colony to make his escape from captivity.  The head leper was grotesquely afflicted and eager to test Papillion’s willingness to accept the lepers as equals in exchange for their assistance.  “ Care to have a smoke?” The leper asks as he hands the Papillion the cigar he has just been smoking.  As Papillion takes the smoldering Cuban, he notices that the leper’s finger has come off and is clinging to the cigar.  As only Steve McQueen would do, he unflinchingly takes a deep satisfied puff.

It was about this time that my knee started to itch again.  The scab had healed but just one unclean cut and I could be easily transformed into one of those legless guys who pulled themselves around on skateboards begging for quarters. My mother once again intervened to explain that the incubation period for leprosy was three to five years.  If memory served, she was quite certain that I had not been in the tropics during my third grade school year.

Years later, I realized that my older brothers had much to do with my bacteriophobia. It was always the same scenario – – a summer campfire and a tall tale about the guy who became a zombie from tsetse fly sleeping sickness. Or he might describe the sad life of Jo-Jo, the Wolf Boy, afflicted with hypertrichosis also known as “the werewolf disease”.  Yet, the most indelible of all stories involved the dreaded intestinal tapeworm.

As the fire cast ominous shadows across my brother’s concerned face, he whispered. “You know how they would they would get rid of your tapeworm’s in the Middle Ages?” He would ask rhetorically with his face screwed into a grimace of false empathy.  “They would starve you, and then make you sit on a chair covered with honey.  The tapeworm would roar out starving for food and then five guys would pull and pull and pull.  If they got it all, you were cured.  If it broke off, forget it.”

Yes, it was very gross.  And yes, from that point forward I ordered well-done meat, compulsively washed my hands and refused to visit any country that had not been independent for at least 50 years.  My sib’s hyperbole included the description of a record-breaking 34-foot tape worm taken out of a man in the Philippines.

I suddenly began to suspect that our refrigerator was a youth hostel for killer microbes.  Raising boys had my mother permanently behind on household hygiene with our Frigidaire serving as the greatest living monument to this fact.  We were trained to check the expiration date on any perishable food item– lest we get a mouthful of lumpy milk, fuzzy gray piece of bread or cheese wedge with great blue mold spores blooming like spring forget-me-nots. She did her best, but it was a losing battle attempting to clean up behind four thoughtless primates.

In a brief and paranoid span of a week, I began to hint at the lack of sanitation in our house.  As she wiped the counters with the sponge that smelled an old Gym sock, my mind’s eye saw our eating space as a massive Woodstock of breeding bacterium.  She would have been better off just wiping everything with a raw pork chop.  “ I heard you can catch a tape worm from eating off a dirty counter top.” I said with my most official sounding voice.  “ Hmmm” was all she said, absentmindedly continuing to load the dishwasher.  “I heard a kid from Pasadena got one that was 25 feet!” “ Really.” Again, no reaction.  “Yeah, and they had to tie him to a tree and starve him.  They put a jar of honey ten feet away and during the night the tapeworm crawled out to get the honey.  They caught it and it’s going to be in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”  That got her.  “Michael, who have you been talking to?”

I survived my Andromeda Strain childhood somehow despite the imminent pandemics of flu – swine, bird and Spanish influenza as well as legionnaire’s disease, AIDS, Hantavirus and Ebola. Years later, in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel, award winning author Jared Diamond confirmed just how close to death I was sharing that most of the world’s pandemics initiated as a result of people living in proximity with animals. Apparently, dogs came with ringworm, tick bites and rabies.  The cat was memorialized by singer Ted Nugent for his ability to afflict a person with Bartonellosis also known as Cat Scratch Fever.  I shuddered at the millions of microbes we must have ingested as we handled rats, turtles, lizards, gerbils, hamsters, snakes, birds, rabbits and guinea pigs. As more evolved warm-blooded hosts, I was amazed that we did not become a hotel for hidden organisms.  Perhaps, all the nitrates and red dye #2 we consumed in hot dogs neutralized the sexual reproductive capabilities of the germs.

In my late forties, I had more or less subdued the demons of my mysophobia – fear of germs. However, society has changed.  The world has become flat and the numerous filters that once spared our adolescent minds from the media blitz of fear and loathing have been stripped away.  The media cannot wait to rub your nose in these terrible afflictions.  If it bleeds, it leads. Even educational channels have sold out to our fascination with stories of the bizarre.

Recently, my brother alerted me to a new Animal Planet television show called, “Monsters Inside of Me.” Ever the helpful sibling, he had pointed me back in the direction of my childhood fears.  I tuned in one evening just in time to watch a young American afflicted with botfly larvae (literally crawling out of his back) and a woman whose brain had been infested with maggots from eating raw pork. The show went on to describe how fast these flesh eating, blood sucking, brain damaging, and lung leeching parasites can kill their hosts.  Worst of all, it was all happening in America.  (My theory was they all used the same restroom at a New Jersey roadside rest stop. Those bathrooms, I’m telling you are killers.)

I now try to stay away from Animal Planet but it calls to me at night. The organisms are once again on the creep and coming to a theatre, hospital and public restroom near me. I must be ready.

And the weirdest part of all is my knee – – it’s started itching again.