IN THE MIAMI AIRPORT Against the advice of our vice president, I have braved the germ-infested world, forced into transit by prior commitments and surrounded by strangers who may not recently have washed their hands.
My own, of course, are scabbed from repeated scrubbing through all four lines of "Happy Birthday to You," which, my epidemiologist neighbor tells me, is how long you have to keep the soap on your hands to do any good.
At this writing, I am sequestered in a small, partitioned area of Miami International Airport. I have just downed my second vial of ImmuGo the immune system-boosting superdose of vitamins and minerals "famous among celebrities," according to the package. I figure celebrities know what they're doing when it comes to warding off germs.
Otherwise, I'm more or less trying not to breathe.
Thus far, I have not donned a face mask, but my tote contains 10 respirator-type masks that, if worn, would so frighten people that their germs would scramble to avoid me.
Such is life on the road during "The Age of Pandemics."
That was the Wall Street Journal headline on Saturday, when I began my journey. On the same day, The Post devoted about two pages to the virus, which we should no longer call "swine flu," out of deference to our porcine friends, which were being slaughtered for no reason whatsoever. We don't get swine flu from swine, apparently.
But it's easier to get hysterical over something named for a beast best known for unhygienic behavior than the less-horrifying H1N1, the official name of the virus formerly believed to be a crisis. It may yet become scary, we are forced to admit, but for now, H1N1 appears to be no worse than regular flu. The rate of contagion is in about the same range as the rates of other strains.
Yet the stories with which all are now familiar have been screaming panic. And so we have panicked closing schools, eschewing shopping and otherwise behaving oddly.
Ahem. Not only have I packed enough medical paraphernalia to supply a small Caribbean island, but I hold my fellow man in less than compassionate esteem. I am not alone.
In the Restroom: I notice the women on either side of me washing their hands. Their lips are moving. I recognize "Feliz cumpleaños."
On the Plane: The woman next to me pulls out her Purex as I unwrap one of my handy instant-sanitizing wipes. We smile at each other with a mixture of understanding and embarrassment. As a mother and baby pass, the little darling turns her runny nose toward us and coughs as though possessed by snarling demon dogs.
"Aw, she's precious, isn't she?" I say to my seatmate. We roll our eyes.
Suddenly, I'm overwhelmed with a need to cough. That is because my lungs are filled with pollen, but I dare not clear my throat for fear the other passengers will turn on me. Not even the air marshal will try to save me as they toss my allergy-wracked body from the plane.
Inexplicably, I confess this urge to my seatmate. Perhaps I am hoping she will take mercy on me when the others come. She says she wants to cough, too. We are now bonded in suppressed-cough, anti-infant solidarity. We wash our hands again and laugh at ourselves. I have no idea if this woman is still alive.
My next flight is like that screen saver of flying toasters hot, small and crowded. This is an all-adult flight to Key West, where most of the passengers are going to relax. (I am joining other journalists for a forum on the intersection of religion and public life.)
There is something palpably different in the air this time nary a care that, as my new seatmate informs me, can't be corrected with a few margaritas. The flight attendant glides down the aisle proffering beer and wine. Out the window, the sky opens and the water turns a color that doesn't have a name yet. "Blue Heaven," perhaps.
Key West: Two days later, I have not heard a pip about illness. My mind is luxuriating in questions about the neuroscience of religious experience, the scientific evidence of G-d, the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr on Barack Obama. The flu does not exist for me.
Ignorance may not be bliss, but when it comes to H1N1, the less you know, the better it may be for you.