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

Bill Bryson
Monday 08 February 1999 00:02 GMT

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).

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