I have just poured a cup of coffee. I have powdered it with a sprinkling of Sweet 'n Low and laced it with a touch of anxiety.
"A little something for the pancreas," I say jocularly to the person behind me. I stir my coffee and put the lid on it.
The word "brew" comes to mind as I carry my morning drink back to my desk. This week, I am conscious of something more sinister in this cup.
You see, coffee has been implicated.
Nothing absolutely positively certain. Just the inkling of a link between coffee and cancer. But it's enough to make Dr. Brian McMahon, the Harvard scientist who headed up the coffee research, give up the stuff. Enough for the rest of us to look deep into the black heart of the Styrofoam container.
The word in the coffee lines of my life is dimay.
"Coffee too?" says one.
"What doesn't give you cancer?" says another.
"You give up smoking, you give up coffee and then you get hit by a truck," moans a third.
But behind this, there is some internal jockeying. What will we do with this, the latest bulletin from the health front? Add it to the information glut? Throw the coffee-cancer connection into our worry overload?
It becomes harder and harder to deal with all the warnings and hazards in our lives. Harder to find a place between complacency and alarm, stupidity and anxiety.
In Phoenix last month, I traveled from the airport with a young woman who gave me a nonstop litany about the chemicals in the food and poisons in the water. Her facts were right, but her attitude was absolutely paranoid. Her world was so perilous that she lived with permanent goose bumps on her psyche.
A day later I found myself by accident in a smoking section of a plane next to a man who puffed across three states and two hours. He did not, he said, worry about smoking.
I wondered then about the ways we all develop to live with our new knowledge of risks. We all know some people who slough off the news about cigarettes, and others who investigate the pedigree of every apple.
I wonder which is "healthier" for us and what "healthier" means. Is it better for our state of mind to accept the dangers in our environment, diet, lives? Or does this capacity to accept danger lead to complacency instead of change?
Is it better to spend our lives in search of safety, in a state of anxiety about the doomsday clocks of additives, coffee and cancer? Does it improve our health or just increase our misery?
We want to live "moderatey," I suppose. But to do that, we have to decide what to worry about.
In an odd way, all this research and all this information has simply multiplied the decision we have to make and the responsibilities we feel.
I suppoe it was different in the days when more of us thought Fate was the culprit. All we could do in the face of Fate was to pray. Before we were familiar with causes, we didn't worry as personally. We didn't think of so many diseases as the careless results of self-neglect.
Now we are less angry at what Fate does to us and more angry at what we might do to ourselves. The sense of our own responsibility for disease and disaster has changed us.
I don't mean to suggest that any one individual is responsible for the chemicals in our environment, the waste in the backyard, the dangers in the work place. But now we are much more likely to feel that we are accomplices in our ill health.
The experts arm us with information. Every year we are offered a smorgasbord of anxieties, from cholesterol to saccharin to coffee, something for the heart to something for the bladder to something for the pancreas. The research comes with large or small danger signs, with revisions, enlargements, rebuttals.
But as we carry our plates down the scientific buffet line, we face more and more decisions, harder and harder choices. We are the ones who finally have to pick -- cigarettes . . . saccharin . . . butter . . . and now coffee.
On my own desk, as I write this, the coffee grows cold, and this time I skip the second cup.