Riley has his 5th grade science project coming up, and he decided he wanted to do a bacteria study. (Well, let’s be honest: I surfed pages and pages of science project ideas and suggested it to him as an alternative to solving the never-before-explored mystery of what happens when you mix Diet Coke and Mentos.) I found an inexpensive bacteria kit on Amazon, and we took samples of various surfaces in the house: a dollar bill, a toilet seat, a bathroom door handle, my cellphone, and the kitchen counter.

His hypothesis was that the cash would be the dirtiest, since it’s been touched by so many people. I suspected my phone would actually be the worst, since I’ve cleaned it … never? I mean, I’ve rubbed it on my shirt a few times when the screen is too smudged to properly view whatever animated GIF I’m trying to snicker at, but that’s it.

The samples, swabbed across agar plates, have been “incubating” in the oven for the past few days, which I agree is a non-ideal place to store growing bacteria, but YOU try and come up with a less unappealing system for subjecting the plates to a precise 85-100 degree temperature range during the gloomiest April on record. Turns out a closed oven with the light on works like a (admittedly not-so-spring-fresh-smelling) charm.

The results are now in, unless there’s some sort of microbial M. Night twist still in the works, and it turns out the dollar produced virtually no bacteria whatsoever. The toilet, unsurprisingly, has quite a bit of growth, as does the door handle. The cellphone only has a few spots, and the blue-ribbon winner … the kitchen counter.

Would you believe I had thoroughly cleaned that counter just before we swabbed it? In fact, I almost told him to pick something else because I figured it was so clean. But no! Now I have to rethink those pretty Method sprays I always use. Apparently I’ve just been wiping away visible dirt, leaving behind both the beguiling scent of honey-ginger-persimmon-pomegranate-whateverthefuck AND innumerable teeming throngs of non-fastidious bacteria. Hey kids, who wants E. coli for dinner?

I can’t lie, though. The worst part of this is that the evidence from his findings will be documented in eye-catching graphic format on that trifold science fair thingie, which will basically amount to a large sign trumpeting MY MOM’S KITCHEN IS MORE FILTHY THAN THE PLACE WHERE WE POOP.

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Imagine there are two journeys. The first involves a short, exciting ascension, followed by a slow-motion plunge. You are initially thrilled by the view at the top, but you quickly lose your footing. You don’t fall tidily, like a diver cutting a clean line into a pool. You’re a plane crash; debris everywhere. Maybe you come up short, bleeding and full of regret, then continue your plummet because surprise! That wasn’t the bottom. If you’re lucky, you eventually land in a heap, broken but breathing.

The second journey begins with a sort of blind scrabbling in the dirt: where am I, who am I, what happened? You pick up your feet and begin trudging along, unsure of what direction to head in. The terrain is both alien and all too familiar, you keep coming across your wreckage. Like corpses on Everest, it isn’t safe to take these things with you. They can only be accepted and acknowledged and laid to rest. (You pick them up anyway, over and over, and carry them until their weight brings you to your knees.) Your legs get stronger, but the edge of the path is always uncomfortably close. A steep drop leads to a place you never want to see. Eventually you realize that everything you thought was so dazzling before was only a mirage. Still, there is a part of you that is like a man in the desert dying of thirst, always reaching for the shimmer. You do your best to drink from other sources, and keep going, one step at a time.

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