Try, just try, grossing out Sylvia Branzei. Big balls of ear wax? Forget it. Athlete's foot? Won't do it. Oozing sores? Diarrhea? Try again. Burps and belches, halitosis, projectile vomit? No dice. Because this junior-high school science teacher, based in Mendocino, California, loves to talk about anything and everything the human body excretes and secretes, no matter how smelly, runny, slimy, or crusty. Branzei, the world's first -- and possibly last -- grossologist, is the author of "Grossology," (Addison-Wesley, 1995), a book for excretory experts, intestinal inquisitors, or just kids who want to make their parents gag.
Her years of delving through the most sordid corners and cavities of our bodies have not dampened Branzei's spirits. In a telephone interview, the scatalogical scholar was vivacious and forthcoming, even when asked the most probing questions.
This is, to say the least, an unusual field of expertise. Why did you decide to write a book about repulsive bodily functions?
I was cutting my toenails one day and said to myself, "Wow, what's this stuff under my toenails? It's really icky and gross." I realized that since I had majored in microbiology, I could actually figure out what it was. Later, over spaghetti dinner with my family, we came up with the idea for this book.
Did you ever make yourself sick while writing it?
Yes, when I learned about the Eskimo tribe where the moms suck the snot out of their babies' noses and spit on the ground. I had to leave my computer to stop gagging, and then come back and write about it.
Does anything else nauseate you?
I have a huge hang-up about spit. You know, big loogies.
But are you less grossed out now than you were before you wrote "Grossology?"
Yes. Around our house now, we feel okay about burping and farting in front of each other. It's like, "This is what we do. Why hide it?" But I wouldn't burp or fart in a nice restaurant or anything.
What do your students think of having a grossologist as a teacher?
They think it's great. If I go into a class and say, "Today we're going to learn about the excretory system," the students yawn. But if I say, "We're going to learn about pee and poop," they say, "Yeah! That's great!" Ultimately, I end up teaching the science behind all these gross things. That's exactly what I do with the book: I use the real words, not the scientific terms. Too often, science hides behind big words.
And although the things you write about are pretty disgusting, learning the reasons why we have eye crust or scabs, for example, helps us to appreciate them.
Basically, your body is trying really hard to take care of you all the time. You realize that everything has a purpose and a place; every bodily function has a function.
Plus, let's be honest. It can be fun to examine some bodily functions, like picking off scabs.
You shouldn't pick your scabs, because your body is trying to heal itself. But it's good to examine your snot. If it's green or yellow, you have an infection. If it's clear, you don't. Snot's a good thing. It keeps junk from reaching your lungs.
Your book has a statistic that says 70 out of every 100 people are nose pickers, and that three out of 70 eat what they find. Don't you think the number of people picking and eating is larger than that?
That's just the statistic that lists people who admit to doing it! It's probably much more.
Why do you think so many people pick their noses in the car?
What else are you going to do in the car? It's a way to pass the time.
Your chapter on projectile barf was fascinating.
Actually, the real name is "projectile vomit." But saying "projectile barf" is so much more fun. It's mostly young children who do it, because their throats haven't opened up enough and they can't control what comes out.
Also, I didn't realize some people actually make money by farting?
Not any longer. The last fartomaniac was in Japan in the 1980s. But they could imitate animal sounds, sing songs, and even blow out candles.
You talked about dust mites. I never knew they existed. That gives me the heebie-jeebies.
I know. It's creepy. There are millions of them on your body that eat your dead skin. There's another wild mite that looks like a crocodile and lives on your eyelashes, where it eats up scum.
Are you planning to write a sequel?
Yes, I'm thinking of doing one on Animal Grossology.
Such as why dogs roll in their own dookie.
That sounds fascinating.
I'm excited about it.