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HOLLENBECK: Traveling through life with great big sneezes

June 21, 2011

In certain parts of Eastern Asia — particularly in the Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese cultures — a sneeze without an obvious cause at one time was perceived as a sign that someone was talking about the sneezer at that very moment.
If this is the case in international circles and it transcends to American shores, I would have to believe that a lot of people are talking about me because I’m a big sneezer — big both in volume and repetitiveness.
My sneezes can turn heads. Literally.
And it’s a given that if I sneeze once, at least one more will follow and probably more. My record, as far as I recall, was 16 in rapid succession. I was ready for a rubber room after that experience.
I’ve been a sneezer always, which some might attribute to the fact that animals are a big part of my life. But, truth be told, even though I may be allergic to some of these dear critters, allergy tests have confirmed that there are many more things in the environment — trees, grass, flowers — that draw positive responses from me during skin testing. For example, a blooming forsythia bush can send me to my knees. But no one can or would want to live in a bubble and I’m not going to isolate myself from life’s joys.
During my early years at this newspaper, Polly Rogers was one of our receptionists. Never was there a more charming person to grace the halls of the Courier.
She became a pseudo-mother of sorts to me, but I had one irritating trait that would send her into a frenzy: My sneezes.
“There you go again, Lynda,” she’d exclaim following one of the blasts. “I just can’t believe that anybody so little can sneeze that big.”
I apologized many times for the explosive character of my achoos, but then tried to explain that there was/is no way to contain them. It would be akin to putting a stopper in Old Faithful just as it would be about to erupt.
There’s just no holding back one of these monsters, which, unfortunately, have been known to scare people.
David Dees, a former news editor of this paper, was working at a table holding side-by-side computers when of my gigantic sneezes occurred as I was seated next to him.
Somewhat showy and dramatic anyway, David jumped up out of his chair and screamed: “Couldn’t you warn your victims?!”
If there were time for a warning, I probably could avoid the experience altogether, but it just doesn’t work that way.
It’s especially embarrassing when I’m covering a meeting for the newspaper to have the discussion interrupted by a Lynda sneeze.
And they’re really disconcerting when I’m driving. I sincerely pray that I won’t crash into someone in the midst of one. I doubt that this would be an acceptable defense in court.
Various alleged but conflicting superstitions have related the sneeze to evil spirits. This includes the belief that a sneeze could release one’s soul, thus leading to its possible capture by lurking evil spirits, or that the evil spirits could enter the body though the open mouth of a sneezing individual, or that the individual is sneezing out sins or evil spirits that have taken residence within the body and thus be in need of a blessing — like the response “God bless you” — to prevent exorcised spirits from re-entering the body.
Some proponents of the theory have further suggested that it was bad luck to open the mouth again to thank the person who uttered the blessing for fear of circumventing its original purpose.
Others claim that the “bless you” saying came into use during the plague pandemics of the 14th century. Blessing the individual after showing such a symptom was thought to prevent possible impending death because of the lethal disease.
In Renaissance times a superstition was formed claiming one’s heart stopped for a very brief moment during the sneeze, so saying “bless you” was a sign of prayer that the heart wouldn’t fail what was possibly the devil’s doing by sending demons to clasp the heart in the body’s moment of shock from the sneeze.
I’m not sure how much, if any, of that stuff I believe, but it’s interesting to ponder.
Alma Joyce Hahn has shared accounts of her cats’ reaction to sneezes from her husband, who also can shake the rafters in these moments. She says the two would come running when they would hear Bill sneezing and then “talk about it” to each other in a gossipy manner.
My sneezes startle people who haven’t heard them, but most people take them in stride after a time.
I mentioned this to a new co-worker after she reacted to one of my zingers.
“You’ll get used to it after a while,” I told Maribeth.
Sweet Holland Doran, Courier news editor, presented a different viewpoint. “I’m not sure that I have,” she said, indicating that I still startle her.
Guess I need to remind these people that I could have worse habits. At least I don’t dip snuff and spit on the floor.

Lynda Hollenbeck is associate editor of The Saline Courier.

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