Thursday, August 25, 2016

"I Contain Multitudes"

There's this line from a Thanksgiving episode of Will & Grace that I adore. Will is frantically cooking the feast for his boyfriend's family, and in the rush an important plate drops.
WILL: Aah!
WILL: Oh. I'm gonna throw 'em out and start again.
VINCE: Don't worry about it. This is Queens. "Three second rule" is like a "three day rule."
I have yet to hear that Queens residents have a higher rate of dying from weird infections than any other place.

A client proudly brought me a brimming bottle of hand sanitizer. I politely thanked him, and have never used it. Nor has anyone else in the office, for that matter.
I can't annihilate germs. They're our friends! 

I was awed by this fascinating book review of I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
According to the latest estimates, about half of your cells are not human — enough to make you wonder what you mean by “you.” Your human cells come from a single fertilized egg with DNA from your mother and father. Microbes began mingling with those human cells even before your first breath, the first kiss from your mother, your first taste of milk. And your human cells could not have built a healthy body without intimate help from all those trillions of immigrant microbes — your other half.
“I am large, I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman declares in “Leaves of Grass,” in his great poem “Song of Myself.” But what is “self”? According to conventional wisdom, your immune system is supposed to protect you by detecting and rejecting anything in your body that is not “self.” And yet your very immune system is partly built and even partly run by microbes. “Even when we are alone, we are never alone,” Ed Yong writes in his excellent and vivid introduction to our microbiota, or microbiome, the all-enveloping realm of our microbes. “When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us.”
Humans swung from ignorant, murderous lack of hygiene to the other extreme, napalming anything that intimated "germs." Hand washing and sterilization has saved many, many lives, and has prevented illnesses from spreading. But as hand washing was overcome by "antibacterial," the results also include superbugs, over-active and harmful immune systems, and compromised intestines that hungered for thriving gut bacteria. 

No extreme is a good extreme. For the Rambam, there was only one exception. 

Tal Abbady's "Less Disinfectant, More Rioja" describes how fear of germs almost cost her the last precious moments of her mother's life. After surgery, her mother contracted a fungal infection in the hospital, which proved fatal.
The next day I came into my mother’s hospital room and sat down, but couldn’t bring myself to touch her. I was suddenly afraid I would catch her state. This lasted about an hour. Then, in that extremity of living — in the last room she would inhabit, with its antiseptic surfaces and green lighting — my mother took over, as she usually did, with a graceful force of will. She looked at me. I put my hands on her hands, on the corporeality of her dying, and my small, cold fear broke apart.
At the moment of her death a few days later, I was broken and weightless at once, large and unafraid. This was her gift . . .
In Spain, where Abbady has lived, there is no "germ" conversation. From my dubious online research, Spain has the highest life expectancy for women in Europe.

We do so many things by route, even when disproved by new information. Chances are, the beliefs we have as the source of our demises are false. I'm saying this as someone who always thinks she's dying. 

We're doing okay now, B'H. Our children survive infancy. No one dies anymore from a "chill." But germs are a part of us. My destroying them indiscriminately, we also destroy our vitality—physically and mentally. 

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