There is a war coming. A war that will rend the very fabric of our society and could eventually result in the end of the human race. I speak not of the war with fundamentalist Islam, or of the otherworldly invasion that we all know is coming; no, this war will be fought — indeed, is already being fought — in our nation’s preschools and kindergartens. I refer, of course, to the coming war between the Purell people (Purellians) and the non-Purell people (the Resistance).
What is Purell? It’s a line of hand-sanitizing products that, according to its website, is “effective at killing 99.9% of most common germs.” It was invented in 1988 for use by doctors and restaurant workers, and eventually was made available to everyone in 1997. (1997– the same year SkyNet became self-aware. Coincidence?) And it is the harbinger of doom. The dinosaurs had the giant meteor; humanity has Purell. But unlike the dinosaurs, humanity has a choice, and if it is to survive, it must fight this growing menace.
The first skirmishes have already begun. It’s becoming more and more common for preschools, kindergartens, and other daycare facilities to offer (in much the same way that Don Corleone “offered” the services of Johnny Fontaine to Jack Woltz) Purell. If you decline the Purell, you get sideways looks, clucking tongues, a judgement that you must not care about your kids. How could you decline the opportunity to sterilize yourself and your precious child? Don’t you want to keep him healthy?
Funny thing about that: despite never having used Purell on myself or my four-year-old son, he has been sick exactly one day in his life. (And, I should note, it may have been his mother’s and my most pleasant day of parenting to date. We played a whole game of Scrabble uninterrupted while he lay with his head in her lap. This may not seem like a big deal to the non-parents out there, but I know the rest of you can appreciate it.)
Has he had sniffles? Yes. Has he had coughs? Yes. Has he had fevers? Yes. But there has only been one day — one day — in four-plus years that he was actually sick enough to stop torturing the dog, inverting his toy box, emptying the kitchen drawers, ripping important documents into tiny pieces, inventing words that rhyme with “poop,” etc.
So do I want to keep him healthy? Of course I do. Which is why I want him to be exposed to germs. Not only do I not use Purell on him, I let him touch whatever he wants wherever he finds it — and I live in Brooklyn. If he picks something up off the sidewalk, if he wants to find out what a hubcap feels like, if he finds a half-eaten popsicle crawling with ants, I leave him alone. And I hope you’re sitting down for this: when we take the subway, I let him touch the pole.
I can just hear the Purellians out there gasping in horror. You’re a negligent parent! He’s going to catch Hepatitis! And then give it to my kid! What’s the matter with you?
As mentioned above, Purell was made available to the general public in 1997. How did we all survive before 1997 without sterile hands? Let me explain, in case you have forgotten sixth-grade science: human beings (indeed, all living beings) have something called an immune system. When we are exposed to germs or viruses or other potentially harmful agents, our immune systems identify them and develop defenses against them. Sometimes those agents make us sick, sometimes they don’t, but they will always have a harder time the next time around because having been exposed to them raises our defenses.
This, it seems face-slappingly obvious to me, is one of the primary functions of daycare and preschool. Sure, it’s nice for the little darlings to socialize and learn to share and drink apple juice, but trading all those germs back and forth makes them stronger human beings (literally). The kids who are being raised by Purellians? Have you noticed that they all seem to have runny noses?
My dad grew up in a way-rural small town in Missouri, and he told me recently that when he was a kid, Lawn Boy (the lawnmower company) set up a factory there, and when the new arrivals complained of hay fever, my dad and the other locals had no idea what they were talking about. You see, they spent all their time outside, so their bodies were immune to allergens like cut grass and pollen.
But people seem to have totally forgotten this fundamental principle of health. A couple of weeks ago one of the mothers in my son’s preschool was alarmed to learn that one of the kids had come down with walking pneumonia. This mother’s response was to petition the management of the preschool to require a doctor’s note for the return of any kid who missed a day of school due to illness.
That seems like insane overkill to me. Little kids get sick — it’s just what they do. I don’t mean to belittle the seriousness of a toddler with walking pneumonia because I’m sure it sucked for everyone involved, but we’re not talking about stopping the spread of walking pneumonia. (The parents stopped it when they took the kid out of school.) This mom wants to stop the spread of germs altogether: a goal as misguided as it is impossible.
There are a million things we all do every day that expose us all to millions of germs every day, but to take one example, let’s just focus on the one that everybody does, the one that, as the old song goes, makes the world go ’round: Money. Think about money for a second. They don’t call it “filthy lucre” for nothing. It passes through an uncountable number of hands, goes through a million pockets of various contents and cleanliness, is even put up people’s noses on Saturday night. And yet we all handle it with our bare fingers every day. A lot of us even lick our fingertips to get a better grip! Based on the logic of the Purellians, we should all contract full-blown AIDS every time we’re at the cash register. But we don’t, and we won’t, at least not as long as we keep our bodies’ natural defenses strong.
That’s why we can’t let the Purellians win. We have to resist! If some hysterical mom reaches into her stroller and tries to squirt Purell in your palm before you get near her precious little Darby, say no thank you! If the preschool teacher won’t let you in to pick up your kid until you sterilize your hands, remind her that you pay her salary! This is a war, people, and it’s about to get serious. The Purellians are out there, and their numbers are growing. The rolling Twitter feed at the bottom of the Purell website is chilling, but it provides insight into their line of thinking — a line of thinking that can’t be dissuaded or reasoned with. Silence equals Death (or at least a bad flu)!
Join the Resistance!