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Let's Reminisce: Old wives' tales
By Jerry Lincecum
May 19, 2019
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According to Wikipedia, an old wives' tale is a supposed truth that is actually false or a superstition. It can also be described as a type of urban legend, passed down by older folk to a younger generation. Such tales are considered folklore or questionable claims with exaggerated or inaccurate details.

What prompted me to seek a definition of the term is a book I read recently, entitled Is It Safe to Kiss My Cat? And Other Questions You Were Afraid to Ask, by Carol Ann Rinzler.  Many of the questions she discusses struck me as ones based on questionable information or unverified claims, like folklore or urban legends.

So I did a little reminiscing about some of the ¡°old wives¡¯ tales¡± I remember hearing during my childhood.  Here are some of them.  Swimming with a full stomach causes cramps; therefore one should wait an hour after eating before swimming.  Don't swallow chewing gum or it will stay in your stomach for seven years. Eating ice cream close to bedtime will produce nightmares.

It's bad luck to open an umbrella indoors. Breaking a mirror will bring you seven years of bad luck. Step on a crack, break your mother¡¯s back. Eating chocolate leads to acne.  Cracking knuckles gives arthritis. Eating crusts (of a sandwich) makes you grow hair on your chest.

Rinzler¡¯s book does address some serious issues, such as whether it¡¯s safe to leave canned food in an opened can.  Since the use of lead in food cans has been forbidden by the Food and Drug Administration since 1995, the answer is that refrigerated food in an opened can is safe for a day or two.  After that natural spoilage may begin.

My wife has convinced me to avoid eating foods sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, because it has been singled out as a possible cause of obesity.  Rinzler says that in fact there is no evidence that our bodies handle this kind of sweetener any differently from other forms of sugar.  Therefore it should not be considered less healthy than other sweeteners.

Remember the mythical housewife whose home is so clean you can eat off the floor?  Or the rule that food dropped on the floor is safe to eat if you retrieve it within five seconds?  Rinzler says don¡¯t believe in either one.  Research has shown that food picked up from the floor after just one second swarms with bacteria.  Moreover, be aware that doorknobs, refrigerator door handles and bathroom faucets¡ªanything touched by human hands¡ªwill be dirty.  The good news is that most of us have a strong enough immune system to withstand this type of casual contamination.

Is it dangerous to shower during a thunderstorm?  The answer depends on the composition of the water pipes in your plumbing.  If they¡¯re made of metal, yes, lightning can theoretically hit the pipes and travel through them to you in the shower.  However, if you have PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipes (as in most newer homes), they are non-conducting and safe from lightning.

Rinzler¡¯s book concludes with an interesting appendix that draws upon a study by the National Safety Council for a ranking of some of the risk factors that might end your life.  For example, the lifetime odds of dying from heart disease or cancer are 1 in 7.  For death by motor vehicle crash, it¡¯s 1 in 113.  Assault by firearm, 1 in 358.  Exposure to fire or smoke, 1 in 1,454.  Plane crash, 1 in 9,737.  Legal execution, 1 in 111,439.  For a lightning strike it¡¯s 1 in 174,426.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com