Ever since I can remember, my mother has benignly referred to my dad as “Louis Pasteur” for his additions to modern science and germ theory: my father is absolutely certain that germs can be labeled for their provenance. Pursuant to this field of study, diseases are attached to their carriers and labeled as if they were a personal characteristic. Thus, if I have a cold, it will be now and forever remembered as “Emily’s cold”, with corresponding date and attributes affixed. Therefore, whenever we’ve got the sniffles, our family avoids each other like the plague.
The reality is that it’s impossible to determine exactly where your current cough-and-sneeze came from. It could have been acquired in the grocery store; those carts are stickily notorious germ catchers, open basket design notwithstanding. Your aches and fever could just as likely be the result of the guy hacking it up behind you in the movie theater, wafting germs up and over your head to settle vicariously on your scalp which are then distributed to your nose when you scratch it. It could have come from an envelope you just opened. The possibilities are as endless as the numbers of existing germs. I read in the paper the other morning that there are, at last tally, ten thousand species of microbial bugs living in and on our bodies. The bad news is that some of these microbios are harmful; the good news is that many assist us in fighting illness and aiding digestion. They’re also very small. Which is a good thing because, theoretically, these bugs can add pounds to the human frame. With a bug count numbering in the thousands, unless you’re a microbiologist, it’s difficult to assign names to germs.
Except when you’re flying in an airplane.
It is common knowledge that the modern voyager takes his life in his hands when setting foot on an airliner. The risks have less to do with navigation, failures of technology, misguided geese, storms which can only be filed under the Act of God category or any fear of becoming a victim of highway robbery. The dangers of modern day travel have everything to do with invisibility of germs and the fact that we must get to our destinations, somehow. No matter how much we feel like crap.
We recently returned from vacationing in Bermuda. Everyone I know was perplexed by our choice of locale. They’d never heard of anyone traveling there; our travel agent had never booked a trip to that destination.
“Um, Bermuda—the one with the triangle?” gets the award for most FAQ. Yes, that was the Bermuda we were planning to visit, I always responded with bravado. Inwardly, I quaked. Had no one truly traveled to this tiny British territory, or was it that they HAD made the voyage, and not returned? The mysterious triangle had done away with them, and they’d vanished, poof! Just like that.
In back-and-forth emails with my friend and dog-sitter, Jackie, we evaluated that possibility, particularly since my emails to her kept disappearing. I blamed invisible elves inside my computer, ones with long, spindly fingers making mischief as I tried to confirm doggie “visits”, but even more so, I worried that it might be a sign of events to come. Jackie, who signs her emails, “Sent from my Rotary phone” and has an overall distrust of technology (which is why my dogs like her so much; she’s never glued to a computer when she’s at the house, but instead plays with them), agreed this was very likely. In her final email, an hour or so before embarking on our journey, she told me it had been a pleasure knowing me.
The vacation was wonderful, and we didn’t disappear. The problems began on our return flight home, right about the time that the captain welcomed us aboard his regal vessel. You’d think, since the flight originated out of Bermuda, our fearless leader of the skies would speak with a British accent, but no, US Airways Flight 1425 was shepherded by the typical Texas-twanging pilot, business as usual.
Resigned to being cooped up in an allotment measuring 17.2 by 31 inches square for hours, I evaluated what activity I should occupy myself with. I could read, doze (being ever vigilant, sleeping is not an option on an airplane), stare out the window (unlikely from the middle seat and not much to stare at, anyways) or peruse the Sky Mall magazine with my son, Harrison. It was proclaimed as a “FREE COPY — TAKE IT. WE’LL REPLACE IT!”
After a page or so, I began to realize that not only do airlines incorrectly account for their passengers’ average body size, they also believe they are transporting a bunch of idiots. They must think that, based on what’s for sale in their magazine. Either that, or once our feet have left solid ground, we are no longer capable of rational thought since our heads are in the clouds.
For starters, Harrison sighed when he saw a luxurious dog bed, envious not for the cute golden retriever (as he typically would be) but for the Comfy Couch Dog Bed, measuring 40 inches wide and 30 inches deep, more than double the size of our seats. “I could curl up in that thing right about now,” he remarked.
Flipping through pages, there seemed to be a distinct pattern of offerings, items which kept popping up, although there was no discernible order or method of presentation: a kit for growing “tasty” oyster mushrooms featured directly next to the ultraviolet shUVee™ Shoe Deodorizer. No logic or marketing concepts seem to have been utilized here. Our interest honed in on four categories, of which we gleefully took note, page by page. Our hoots grew louder and more raucous; by the time we reached the end of the catalogue, we were in tears of laughter. It’s a good thing those airplanes are so noisy.
First, there are PETS: I believe this category is important to the traveler, because animals tug at your heartstrings. We miss our animals for the simple reason that they never talk back. Sky Mall promotes this emotion mercilessly with offers of gadgets to improve how you feed and water your animals, potty train your cats ( I thought cats can’t be trained to do anything), make them comfortable and restrain man’s best friend within assigned boundaries. The award went to the two products most diametrically opposed, on pages 46 and 47: choose between “Plush, quilted, family-friendly covers” for furniture (drooling bulldog in picture sitting on couch cover optional) or the PupSTEP Stairs, to help your doggie climb up on the couch. It “save[s] you from lifting your pet up and down,” which is clearly a benefit. My question is, which is it going to be? Do you want them up? Or do you want them down? Make up your mind!
The next two topics which airlines prey upon while we sit trapped in their vehicles are based on fear and trepidation, or HAIR LOSS and EXERCISE EQUIPMENT, respectively. Harrison and I lost count of the ways to either replace thinning hair (Laser/LED light method is heavily favored) or shampoo your way back to your hairs’ natural color without spending your child’s college tuition in the process.
Exercise options are endless, beginning with the intriguing Orbitwheels, promoted as having “two feet, two wheels. . .and you’re ready to go.” The “how do you stay balanced by inserting your feet into two round rubber tubes an inch wide?” question is left up to your “imagination!” These are clearly begging for a road rash. There are foldaway striders and Elliptical-esque bike striders, which are scary-looking contraptions. Harrison wondered if it were possible to steer them, given the construction. I said I hoped so. They were prominently featured with two happy “striders” striding across a bridge hung over an ocean; without a steering option, they’d be striding into the depths pretty quickly. I decided the exercise equipment was a coping mechanism, assuaging our guilty knowledge that we really shouldn’t have caved to indulge in that airport-sized cinnamon roll before boarding. The underhanded (but unwritten) statement was, “You know you overdid it on vacation. Now get out there and work off that fat, you lazy pig!”
Coming in second for highest product count were those in the STAY HEALTHY category, which is an obvious acknowledgment on the part of the airlines that they KNOW their vacuum-sealed, aluminum tubes are stuffed full of germs, that there is absolutely nothing they can do about it, nor will they try. Can you imagine your flight attendant pleasantly presenting you with a surgical mask and a squirt of disinfectant gel for your hands as you come on board? “Please respect your fellow passengers,” she sings out with a smile. “Have a wonderful flight!” Oh, wait. That was my alternate reality talking.
So, we’re home. The Bermuda Triangle didn’t whisk us away into oblivion, but I have a horrific cold. I’m sweating buckets and snorting like a racehorse. I can’t get my temp down below 102 degrees. It’s settled into my chest. I’m coughing like a California seal. I know I could have avoided this outcome: I could have purchased a Nano-UV Disinfection Wand for $159.99 or The Traveler’s Bed Bug Thwarting Sleeping Cocoon for $79.95, a product which must have been developed by a mortician; it looks remarkably similar to a body bag but would be better labeled as a “Full Body Bed Burkha”.
I could blame the airlines. Or the hotel industry. Or any of the several thousand people I encountered over the last week. I could damn all of the microbials for my current misery.
Instead, I think I’ll berate myself for not having enjoyed, guilt-free, an oversized airport cinnamon roll with my free-on-board airplane Starbucks™ coffee. I can always blame the extra pounds I’ve recently acquired on the ten thousand microbes I’m carting around.
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