Decisions, decisions. Do I sing "Happy Birthday," the "ABC Song," or recite the "Pledge of Allegiance" while I wash my hands? Or do I just go into my default mode and count to 20 very slowly while lathering? I want to spend the proper amount of time rubbing in the soap, making sure to get all the spaces between my fingers and paying attention to the areas under my nails, because I need to kill the germs. I`ve gotta get them before they get me.

I clean my hands as if I were going to be performing surgery each time I go to the bathroom, touch another person`s hands, or touch anything another person`s hands touched. I have to be extra careful in my sanitation efforts if I plan to eat. And whether I think my hands are clean or not, I am careful to never touch my mouth, nose, or eyes in case any microbes are lurking that could sneak into my system and give me the flu.

People who used to be this attentive to hand-washing were once called obsessive-compulsive. We laughed at those germ-phobic enough to only touch door handles with a paper towel. Now the worriers are considered reasonable people, following precautions recommended by anyone who gives such precautions -- the CDC, The Surgeon General, the AMA, your mother. I used to be cavalier about germs, quoting studies that show that there may be more sickness these days because we`re too clean. I`ve changed. When I meet someone and shake hands, I check them out for signs of fever and get to the soap and hot water as quickly as I can.

At work we now have Purell dispensers in every classroom, and we all use them frequently. The unforeseen bonus is that a perfumed alcohol smell has replaced the musty odor of young-adult bodies crammed into classrooms. I, for one, still prefer old-fashioned soap and water to the liquid cleanser. I want to wash those germs down the drain, not smear them into my palms and hope that they`re dead.

Our hands have never been cleaner. I wonder if we`re all nuts. What are we suddenly so afraid of? I know there is a swine flu pandemic, but are we all afraid that we are going to die from this, in most cases, fairly mild illness? Most of my peers are not even in the vulnerable groups, and yet we too are doing what we can to stave off the disease.

Perhaps it is the word pandemic that terrifies us. It makes us think of those movies about viruses that sweep through communities causing massive, bloody, deaths, even among some of the movie`s lead characters. The camera pans over rows of coughing sufferers laid out in school gyms because the hospitals are full. In those movies innocent communities are caught by surprise, unable to prepare for the disaster that awaits them. No one is safe.

We are luckier than those fictional victims of an unknown virus; we can prepare for the disaster. We have the power to make ourselves safe. We can get flu shots, stay away from sick people, disinfect our surroundings, and sanitize our hands. It should be no surprise that so many of us are taking advantage of this advice about how to protect ourselves. After all, if we ignore the precautions and get sick, we would add extra misery to the Swine flu. In addition to suffering with fever and chills, we would suffer from knowing that our illness was our own fault.

In addition to feeling that we are tempting fate not to keep that Purell flowing, cleaning our hands gives us a sense of control. What a wonderful feeling that is -- control. When there is so much in our lives that we can`t control, it feels great to have some power over something, even if it is a microscopic bug.

We can`t control those big banks who begged us to lend them money, and months later are so rich act like they never met us. We can`t control companies who are cutting back on jobs, or pay, or hours. We can`t control the value of our homes. We can`t control the various ups and downs of the price of gas. We can`t control the health care issue, even if we understand all the proposals for reform. But maybe we can control the H1N1 virus.

With all the threats that hang over our heads these days -- losing jobs, losing houses, losing health care, losing glaciers, losing our sanity -- a new flu pandemic that could possibly wreak havoc on the human race seemed like the last straw. But this is one threat that we can fight, with the power of Purell and the strength of soap.