Confessions of a Germaphobe
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 “Daddy! Daddy! There’s that weird lady! Look, Daddy, look!”

            Pointing straight at me, the child at the L. A. International Airport baggage claim was creating a bit of a ruckus. Earlier, on the flight from Hawai'i, I had awakened from a nap to see her and another child in the aisle, pointing at me open-mouthed. My husband and I were the only passengers on the flight to be wearing germ filter masks, and of course we looked ridiculous.

            I was wearing an eye mask too, and ear plugs, and there was a cloud of lavender fragrance around me from the essential oil that I discreetly dabbed on my mask and temples. (Lavender oil is antibacterial.) I changed my mask regularly, and every so often I sprayed it with ultra-colloidal silver to keep it moist and uber-germ-free. In my pocket, as always, were a bottle of alcohol-based antibacterial gel and packets of antibacterial wipes for any new hard surface I would have to encounter. While I do this routinely for my own protection, if I were ill, I would be protecting others too.

            The realm of a germophobe is fraught with fear, angst, and, as the rest of the world is discovering, good sense. As a psychologist once told me, anxiety disorders can also be productive. The world is full of unseen hazards, invisible, insidious, and random. While dirt and soil are straightforward in their visibility, microscopic hazards lurk everywhere, waiting for the opportunity to find new hosts and pounce.

            My husband and I have used germ filter masks for more than a decade now, and it always surprises us that more travelers don’t adopt this practice. Inevitably, we are the only ones on the flight wearing masks. How many times have I sat across the aisle from a cougher, healthy me in my mask, the cougher hacking openly, polluting the cabin with abandon? Could it be the westerner’s sense of pride? The Japanese think nothing of wearing masks onTokyo streets and subways as a matter of courtesy. I am less altruistic. I routinely wear masks for my self-protection. The side benefit—protecting others—only happens if I happen to be ill, which, knock on wood, happens rarely, because I wear a mask. Many flight attendants have confided to us that they envy us our choice, that they wish they could wear masks too.

            Naysayers contend that exposure to germs helps build immunity. There are more than enough opportunities in daily life for hostile microbes to slip through the cracks and challenge my immunity, thank you—in the air, at the drugstore, on magazines and menus, on shopping carts and baskets, even with the store-provided wipes.

            Will the swine flu change things? We’ll see. As the cliché goes, old habits die hard. Yet, in Honolulu, drugstores were sold out of the N-95 masks after the news media touted them as adequate against the swine flu. Already there’s talk of neckties, those germ factories on physicians as they lean in on patient after sick patient, becoming outré in the medical world. And the handshake? In the newly germophobic, post-swine-flu reality, that practice is long overdue for the dustbin of history. I know where my hands have been, but those fingers and palm reaching toward me in a friendly gesture, on someone I’ve never met? I…don’t…think…so. Yet time and again, driven by the rules of civility, we’re forced to respond because it’s impolite not to do so.

            Social graces are the most difficult to navigate in a newly germophobic culture. Personal practices—avoiding or wiping down handles, holding your breath in elevators, wearing a mask, opening doors with paper towels (or pushing with a well-clothed elbow)—are solitary choices that are easy to make because they do not involve social interaction. But when a hand is extended or a cheek is offered, it’s harder to behave like a pariah.

            A friend from California once recounted how the purser on a trans-Pacific flight stood at the door and shook each person’s hand as passengers exited upon arrival. While the gesture was cordial—good customer service—fellow germophobes, my friend included, recoil at the thought of all those possibilities for germ transmission exploding exponentially on the purser’s hand. Frequent hand-washing and antibacterial gels are an excellent and necessary solution.

            Since I am already a pariah, having been inducted into the Weird-Lady-Club by hand-pointing children at airports, I herewith serve notice to anyone I may meet: Please do not be offended if I don’t readily extend my hand. It’s nothing personal. How about a fist bump, or sincere eye contact instead?

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