Bryson's America: Warning: do not forget to read this column

I CAME across something in our bathroom the other day which has occupied my thoughts off and on since. It was a little dispenser of dental floss.

It isn't the floss itself that is of interest to me, but that the container has a freephone number painted on it. You can call the company's Floss Hotline 24 hours a day. But why would you need to? I keep imagining some guy calling up and saying in an anxious voice: "OK, I've got the floss. Now what?" As a rule of thumb, I would submit that if you need to call a floss provider you are probably not ready for this level of oral hygiene.

My curiosity aroused, I had a look through our cupboards and discovered that nearly all household products in America carry a hotline number. You can ring up for guidance on how to use soap and shampoo, gain helpful tips on where to store ice-cream so that it doesn't melt, and receive professional advice on which parts of your body you can most successfully and stylishly apply nail polish to. ("So let me get this straight. You're saying not on my forehead?")

For those who do not have access to a telephone, or who perhaps have a telephone but have not yet mastered its use, most products also carry helpful tips such as "Remove shells before eating" (on peanuts) and "Caution: do not re-use as beverage container" (on a bleach bottle). We recently bought an electric iron which admonished us, among other things, not to use it in conjunction with explosive materials. In a broadly similar vein, I read a couple of weeks ago that computer software companies are considering re-writing the instruction "Strike any key when ready" because so many people have been calling to say they can't find the "Any" key.

Until a few days ago I would have chortled richly at people who need this sort of guidance, but then three things happened that made me modify my views.

First, I read in the paper how John Smoltz, a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves baseball team, showed up for training with a painful red welt across his chest and, when pressed, sheepishly admitted he had tried to iron a shirt while he was wearing it.

Second, although I have never done anything quite so foolish as that, it was only because I had not thought of it.

Third, and perhaps most conclusively, two nights ago I went out to run two small errands - specifically, to buy some pipe tobacco and post some letters. I bought the tobacco, carried it straight across the street to a letter box, opened the lid and deposited it. I won't tell you how far I walked before it dawned on me that this was not a 100 per cent correct execution of my original plans.

You see my problem. People who need labels on pillar-boxes saying "Not for deposit of tobacco or other personal items" can't very well smirk at others, even those who iron their chests or have to seek lathering advice from a shampoo hotline.

I mentioned all this at dinner the other night and was appalled to see the enthusiasm with which all the members of the family began suggesting labels that would be particularly apt for me, such as "Caution: when door says `Pull', it's absolutely no use pushing" and "Warning: do not attempt to remove sweater over head while walking among chairs and tables". A particular favourite was "Caution: ensure that shirt buttons are in correct holes before leaving house". This went on for some hours.

I concede that I am somewhat inept with regard to memory, personal grooming, walking through low doorways, and much else, but the thing is, it's my genes. Allow me to explain.

I recently tore out of the newspaper an article concerning a study at the University of Michigan, or perhaps it was the University of Minnesota (at any rate, it was somewhere cold with "University" in the title), which found that absent-mindedness is a genetically inherited trait. I put it in a file marked "Absent-Mindedness" and, of course, immediately mislaid the file.

In searching for it I found another file intriguingly marked "Genes and So On", which is just as interesting and - here was the lucky part - not altogether irrelevant. In it I found a copy of a report from the 29 November 1996 issue of the journal Science entitled "Association of Anxiety-related Traits with a Polymorphism in the Serotonin Transporter Gene Regulatory Region". Now, to be frank, I don't follow polymorphism in serotonin or transporters as closely as I ought, at least not during basketball season, but when I read "By regulating the magnitude and duration of serotonergic responses, the 5-HT transporter (5-HTT) is central to the fine-tuning of brain serotonergic eurotransmission," I thought, Hey, these fellows could be on to something.

The upshot of the study is that scientists have located a gene (specifically gene SLC6A4 on chromosome 17q12, in case you want to experiment at home) which determines whether you are a born worrier or not. To be precise, if you have a long version of the SLC6A4 gene, you are very probably easy- going and serene, whereas if you have the short version, you can't leave home without saying at some point: "Stop the car. I think I left the bath water running."

What this means is that if you are not a born worrier then you have nothing to worry about (though, of course, you wouldn't be worrying anyway), whereas if you are a worrier by nature there is nothing you can do about it, so you may as well stop worrying, except, of course, you can't. Now put this together with the findings about absent-mindedness at the University of Somewhere Cold, and I think you can see that our genes have a great deal to answer for.

Here's another interesting fact from my "Genes and So On" file. According to Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker, each one of the 10,000 billion cells in the human body contains more genetic information than the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica (and without sending a salesman to your door), yet it appears that 90 per cent of all our genetic material doesn't do anything at all. It just sits there, like Uncle Fred and Aunt Muriel when they drop by on a Sunday.

From this I believe we can draw four important conclusions, namely: 1) Even though your genes don't do much they can let you down in lots of embarrassing ways; 2) always post your letters first, then buy the tobacco; 3) never promise a list of four things if you can't remember the fourth one, and 4)...

`Notes from a Big Country' by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, pounds 16.99).

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue