I've gotten a lot better in the last few years. My faithful bottle of Purell anti-bacterial hand wash sits forgotten on a dark closet shelf. I only gently suggest that a coughing co-worker would feel better if he went home. Meeting people is so much less stressful now that I can wait at least four minutes before I scrub off the faint memory of their moist warm handshake. I'm okay. I can admit that I used to be a little concerned over other people's germs.
Fatherhood became my final test of phobias. It's okay to beg off from hugging a friend's snotty-faced child, but it doesn't seem right to insist that your own kid washes his face first. John and I trade food (with our own utensils) easily, and last night I even ate a tomato after he mashed it apart with his greasy fist. I'm still sensible. I approach the dreaded bathroom wipe with the appropriate caution-- two swipes with at least six squares of two-ply toilet paper and then raise my hands like a surgeon until I can slather on soap and scrub them under boiling water.
John watches all and tucks everything neatly away in his little brain. For the last couple of months he started screeching, "Jaaasoon," at me if I was tickling or teasing him. He screams it with a mischievous smile like he's getting away with something. He says it like he means "Stop it now," instead of just randomly parroting my name. Renee and I were both puzzled until he laughed once after Renee was trying to get me to stop doing something fun like acting out to John how the eye doctor will give him a shot with a pencil sized needle into his eyeball. I guess that I had tuned out how she really only says my name when she's getting on my case.
So like any responsible parent, I try to watch my behavior around him. I try not to curse unless it's under my breath or I spell it out. Sometimes during a walk John will suddenly stop in the middle of the sidewalk to chat with a crazy man. I politely nod and avoid looking closely at the man's grasping, needy hands as John quizes him on his preference for big vans or Ford pick-up trucks. By not clutching him to my chest and running away while lecturing him on the dangers of scary strangers, I'm setting an example of tolerance. I don't want my fears to become his own.
So it should be clear that I never meant to crack at the Port-a-Poty. We were casually strolling between rows of pigs, goats, cattle, and small rabbits as we enjoyed a warm morning at a stereotypical country fair. Some of the Kazak children are understandably petrified of dogs and cats. John's a little apprehensive, but you can tell how much he loves any animal as he tries to pet the butting goats or stops to kiss several rabbits through their metal mesh cages.
With my new germ-loving personality, I hardly ever thought about the accumulating layers of goat snot and pig dander on my own hands. I'm a big fan of animals myself. John's request to go to the bathroom caught me by surprise. Usually I have to suggest and then drag him to the bathroom. Today we would only have one option-- a brightly purple Port-a-Poty.
Renee casually reminded him not to touch anything as I led him into that stinky closet. As I shot the door my mind was trying to process how he was going to do his usual balancing act on a disease-infested toilet seat. As I fought with the cheap plastic latch John pushed past me to peer into the gray grimy urinal. He grabbed for the urinal's dirty lip as if he was about to snap out a few pull-ups, and I lost it. My normally restrained voice boomed against the sides of our tiny box as I yelled, "Don't touch anything!" When I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away, I knew that I had blew it.
John put his head down in silence for a brief moment. He was giving me a moment to dread the inevitable tears and crying. Now I'm stuck in this sweltering hot prison trying to console a confused child, It's too tight to pick him up so I crouched down with my face a few inches between him and the cursed toilet seat. I explained that I'm not mad, it's just that the room is dirty. His snivels diminished as I wrestled with his pants and lifted him onto that damn seat. After we finished our duty I turn to the wall-mounted soapless hand cleaner. Of course it's empty. How could I have ever abandoned my beloved Purell!
When we finally escaped we had to blink our eyes to adjust to the mid-afternoon sun. I successfully found some hand cleaner at the next Port-a-Poty. As I stood there wondering how much damage I'd done to our child and if Renee had heard me, John turned and casually said, "Where the eat? I want to eat at restaurant." I suppressed a shudder as I considered the sanitary conditions of these mobile ecoli factories that attach themselves to county fairs. I just turned up my biggest smile and said, "Well let's go get some eats!"
And so we survived the hamburgers and hot dogs at the relatively luxurious 4H tent. Renee was worried that John might not be getting a balanced meal, but I was even able to scrounge up a sad banana that he eagerly stuffed into his little mouth. In an effort to make up for my outburst I went on a search for ice cream and found a stand run by a local restaurant. I imagined they must have a higher standard of hygiene so I ordered three bowls of ice cream. One with blue and white sprinkles for John.
I carried them back like a victorious hunter, only to find John eye the sprinkles like they were rat poison. I quickly switched my bowl for his, and then watched as Renee pulled two six inch long hairs out of her own bowl. I told her not to be a baby and offered to trade. She said that she'd keep her own and I tried not to stare in horror as she ate it. After a few minutes I could even smile and ask her how she liked her cold bowl of hair-cream.
After lunch we ran into a local politician handing out stickers, nail files, and brochures. However John only had eyes for the bunch of bright blue helium balloons that a helper was handing out. He stared in wonder as I tied it around his wrist, and then danced and talked with it for the rest of the afternoon. Renee was happy that we had a free babysitter to occupy him as we walked through the exhibit halls to study the cardboard posters on "how to load a horse into a trailer," shelves of desiccated vegetables, and walls and walls of cheesy animal photos.
The entire time John jumped and talked to his new inflated friend named, "Hey!" He was floating with it in a moment of wonder and discovery--well above the earthbound fears of a first time father. I happily took his small hand in mine to share his joy. Then leaning down I told him, "Be careful! If you keep hitting that balloon against the wall, it's going to pop. And if you let it go---you're going to lose it!"