Paranoia Will Destroia
By Tony Kornheiser, The Washington Post, Sunday, October 5, 1997
In response to mad cow disease I stopped eating meat.
In response to red tide I stopped going to the beach.
In response to pfiesteria I stopped eating fish.
In response to cryptosporidium I stopped drinking water.
In response to cyclospora I stopped eating fresh fruits and vegetables.
In response to El Nino I have locked myself in my house.
It's okay, I have cable. (But I'm getting pretty damn sick of rice
cakes. What do they make these things out of, shirt cardboard?)
This is not the way I thought the world would end -- with me starving
and thirsty and cowering in my house for fear that some apocalyptic wind
would blow me around the neighborhood like Auntie Em.
The last week has been a environmental paranoid's delight. We've had
the ongoing horror of the aptly named pfiesteria (the serendipitous
confluence of a little bit of fish and a lot of hysteria), in which fish
in the Chesapeake Bay wash up dead with huge open wounds that make them
look like they've been carrying on with Marv Albert.
Then I read this story in The Washington Post about "dinoflagellates"
that are attacking coastlines throughout North America.
("Dinoflagellate" sounds like the technical name for Barney Rubble's
dominatrix.) Dolphins, pelicans and manatees are washing up dead, which
is terrible for them -- but more to the point these microrganisms are
contaminating mussels! Don't get me wrong, I'm heartsick for the
families of the pelicans. But let's say these microbes start going
after all shellfish, then what happens to the all-you-can-eat at Red
Lobster? How are they gonna keep it at $9.95?
The next day the New York Times had a story linking outbreaks of
food-borne diseases to strawberries, scallions and cantaloupes from
Mexico, canned mushrooms from China and coconut milk from Thailand. So
now I have label paranoia. Before this I'd never checked where my
fruits and vegetables came from. What was I supposed to do, lift up
every green bean and look for a postmark? Who cared where your carrots
came from? Now I want labels with street addresses: "These cucumbers
were grown at 8755 Seaview Lane, York, Pa., fertilized by a cow named
Rebecca Sue and harvested by some skinny foreign guy with excellent
But the scariest thing of all is El Nino, which is going to pluck me
from my yard and plop me in the Indian Ocean. I am so mad at El Nino
that I want to run to the oceans, stand on the rocks that jut out, rip
off my shirt and scream in defiance, "Come get me, El Nino, you rat
bastard!" (But my skin is so fair that if I take off my shirt I have to
put on SPF 45, and my dermatologist will insist that I wear a hat, too.)
Everything bad is traceable to El Nino.
Global warming -- El Nino.
Flooding, mudslides, drought, locusts, vermin, blood, frogs -- El Nino.
Montserrat, that cute little island that now looks like a fraternity
house ashtray -- El Nino.
"George & Leo" -- El Nino.
(As I understand it, El Nino is not only a vicious wind, but also a
boiling-hot water current. I understand chefs at Carnival Cruise Lines
now pull their poached sea bass right from the ocean. Sprinkle a little
parsley, slap it on a doily and voila!)
The administration is so concerned about El Nino and other
weather-related hazards that President Clinton and Vice President Gore
-- who is particularly nervous that El Nino will disrupt international
telephone service and cost him millions in overseas pledges -- invited
110 distinguished TV weathermen to the White House the other day to get
their thoughts on the matter. After what was described as "a useful
exchange of information," the weathermen issued a statement
congratulating Mrs. Edna Glueck of Sheboygan, Wis., on her 100th
It's funny how things work out. When I was a kid I worried that the
Russians would drop a bomb, and we'd all die in a huge explosion. Now I
worry that we all won't die in a huge explosion. Now I worry we'll waft
Oh, wait a second. I've just talked to my friend Curt, who actually
knows something about El Nino, and he says I've got it all wrong. He
says we're totally cool with El Nino. He says El Nino is good for
everybody -- unless you're a salmon. Apparently, the warm water has
brought huge predatory fish the size of battleships up the West Coast,
and they're gulping up salmon like M&Ms. That's too bad. But I guess I
can develop a taste for swordfish.
Curt says El Nino is great for America. It cuts down the number of
hurricanes in the East. It brings water to the desert Southwest. It
warms the climates in the North and expands their growing seasons; in a
couple of years Minnesota might be the grapefruit capital of the world.
"The mob couldn't sell you protection this good," Curt says.
Then who's it bad for? I asked.
"It's bad for the people for whom life is always bad," Curt said with a
shrug. "Peruvians, Indonesians..."
Jeez, I hope the wind doesn't drop me there.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company