We know what we know

Last October/November, I caught that horrible cold/cough that was going around… and it stuck around for more than five weeks by the time I finally got over it.

My friend Mike knew exactly why I was sick.

The day before I woke up with the telltale tickle in the back of my throat, Mike and Penny and I had biked to the Clement Street farmers market. I bought a bunch of carrots. And proceeded to eat several of them. Unwashed. Much to Mike’s horror.

A devout germ-o-phobe, Mike hates touching things in public places (Purell is his friend) and harbors an irrational fear that sweaty people might rub up against him at concerts. I don’t know that he does, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he insists upon using that vegetable wash stuff at home. Despite all of this, he eventually accepted one of those slightly-gritty farmers market carrots I kept pushing on him that afternoon.

And Mike got sick too! Only for a day, though. He was convinced — and told me repeatedly over the course of my weeks of misery — that the cause of our sickness was the unwashed carrots. He only ate part of one, so his illness came and went quickly; I ate several, so I was sick for weeks.

Clearly.

Part of why I love Mike is that he is unflinchingly convinced of his own theories, which are frequently as absurd as this one. Any contradictory evidence, no matter how reputable its source (say, my doctor’s reminder that food-borne illnesses tend to be gastrointestinal in nature, as opposed to respiratory), is clearly hogwash. He knows what he knows.

I’m down with yet another cold now, and this time I know why: it’s because I’ve been swimming in a chlorinated pool.

Firmly holding down the opposite side of the germ spectrum, I prefer to expose myself to living things like yogurt, kombucha, fermented foods, dirt on carrots (etc) to stay healthy. I’m somewhat protective of my “protective layer,” the name my friend Jonah uses to refer to the friendly bacteria on human skin a nod to the role of a fish’s slime. Perhaps you know this as your “microbiome,” as this term made the rounds last year thanks to Michael Pollan’s New York Times article about germs (though in my opinion he borrowed a bit too much from this New Yorker germs piece from a few months prior).

So unless I’m in an area prone to brain-eating amoebas, I’d just as soon give up soap entirely than use Purell. Needless to say, repeatedly dousing oneself in chlorine — its very purpose for being in the pool in the first place is to kill things! — has always struck me as a bad idea for anything living.

But I signed up for the Alcatraz swim in September [UPDATE – life happened, the swim never did!]. Because I haven’t ever been a distance swimmer (unless you count a brief lap-swimming stint in the 90s), it seems like a better idea to train rather than injure myself attempting such a feat straight off the couch. Since I’m not ready to invest in an open-water swimming wetsuit just yet, I’ve resigned myself to regular doses of serious chlorination.

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr Daphne Miller give a keynote to a room full of hundreds — actually, thousands — of farmers. Much to my delight, she cited a couple microbe-friendly studies covered in her most recent book, Farmacology:

  1. The more diverse the microbial populations are in soil, the higher the nutrient content of the fruits and vegetables grown therein; and
  2. The more diverse the microbial populations are in our own guts, the healthier we are.

She actually recommends eating a little dirt along with your vegetables, so long as they’re from healthy soil. I’m sure that if she had had more time (or if I could bother to read her book), she’d get around to mentioning something about our microbiomes…

Of course it’s a writer’s prerogative to regurgitate research that supports our own absurd causality theories. How can I not when in this case mine directly contradicts Mike’s? That’s what good friends do, right?!

Well, maybe that goes against my intention to be a kinder person, so I’ll concede that I know it’s not true that I’m sick because of chlorine, though I’d still love to find a saline pool, just as much as I know I didn’t get sick last fall because of the dirty (organic!) carrots.

Why am I sick, then? More importantly, why have I been getting sick so frequently these last six months?  (Warning: Carolyn Myss / John Sarno type declaration ahead!)

I know why: it’s because I’ve become allergic to the life of a traveling speaker, figuratively speaking.

After months of ignoring the warning signs, I officially quit that line of work yesterday, cancelling all the events that I’d previously signed up to do, and bailing out of a negotiation for one I had just about committed to.

I’m not going to get sick that often anymore. I know it.

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