by Akim Reinhardt
I. A Sneeze for All Seasons
II. God Bless You
III. The Poetry of Sneezing
IV. Sneeze vs. Cough
Sternuisso ergo sum. I sneeze, therefore I am.
It defines me. It is at the core of my very existence. It is hell on Earth.
I. A Sneeze for All Seasons
Most people associate sneezing with a particular season, usually spring. For me, however, sneezing is hardly relegated to any quarter of the year. To the contrary, those respiratory convulsions afflict me all the year long. Spring is merely a furious crescendo of snot and burst blood vessels, with all the other seasons taking note and following suit to a lesser degree.
Summer. This would most likely be my annual respite from sneezing if not for my fellow Americans' horrid fetish for artificial environments. Once you move south of the upper Great Lakes or northern New England, air conditioning is King. Indeed, I now believe most people are pathetically weak, shrinking and wailing in the face of an 85F degree day (nearing 30C) as if Satan had finally triumphed and unleashed Hell's searing fireballs upon us.
In particular I look gravely askance upon those who set their thermostat at 72 in Winter and 68 in Summer. There really is no pleasing them, and their convoluted, soulless lives are so far removed from the of beauty of this world that I hope Mother Earth rejects them in the end, spitting their bones back out after they're buried.
My burning hatred for A/C is multi-faceted. To offer just a few complaints, it gives me a headache, it makes my face numb, it dries my natural perspiration into a fetid crust, and in any event, I'm a skinny fuck who prefers to be warm and adjusts easily to summer, even muggy ones here along the Chesapeake Bay.
But back to the point. Air conditioning sometimes induces sneezing fits. Probably not, Lord help me, if I'm just sitting in some vapid air conditioned box all day, breathing particulate matter and contemplating the finer points of a nuclear holocaust. But if I'm in and out of air conditioning on a hot day, perhaps doing some shopping, moving from natural warmth and humidity to the artificially dry and cool, and back again, a sneezing fit can descend upon me rather suddenly.
As best I can tell, it results from the ping pong of fluids loosening and tightening in my head. Much like muscles, my sinuses seem loose and relaxed on a warm day. Walking into some frigid little hell hole instantly tightens everything up. I leave, and everything is loose again, perhaps so loose that it demands instant expunging. The mucus, previously calm and unmolested, now descends in a torrent, accompanied by an onslaught of staccato explosions.
Man, that sucks.
Autumn. Fall is actually the month in which I am least likely to sneeze, though it hardly offers blanket immunity. While there are no major causes hounding me, as there are with the other three seasons, I still launch forth unexpectedly now an again. Most of those episodes fall into the vacuous category of Who The Hell Knows Why.
Maybe I spent a little too much time with a strange, fur-bound animal. Maybe some unknown allergens got caught in my mustache. Maybe I'm just destined to descend into a pit of snotty despair from time to time. But for whatever the reason, once in a while I still give it up in autumn.
Winter. Come winter, all is dead. Seasonal allergens are not a concern, and of course the dizzying burden of air conditioning is not an issue. However, moving between the cold air outside and warmth of homes and stores can bring on an effect similar to summer, as everything tightens and loosens repeatedly.
Winter also brings increased possibilities for sneeze-inducing pathogens, ranging from the common cold to some new specie-jumping strain of influenza that will have everyone wearing surgical masks and elbowing old people and children out of the way for the chance to get a vaccination. Alhough for all my complaining, and this piece is of course nothing if not one endless complaint, I'm actually pretty hardy. Most winters I don't get sick at all. Too goddamn stubborn, most likely. But I'm not completely immune, so we can, at least to a modest degree, add winter's sniffles to the mix when listing those things that cause me to sneeze.
Spring. For many people, spring is the most favored of all season. And I get it. Flowers are blooming, the weather is often delectable, the recession of winter raises everybody's spirits, and there's just something in the air that makes most people horny as fuck. Good stuff.
However, for me and the similarly afflicted, spring means seasonal allergies.
I've lived in a variety of North American climates, with varying vernal effects. By far the worst for me was New York City, where I was born and raised. Each spring, my face would just melt. My eyes, itchy and sore, were a constant source of tears, while my nose spilled forth with abandon, punctuated by frequent bouts of sneezing. It was so bad, that in high school my parents took me to see an allergist. He gave me prescription nasal spray and eye drops.
Nasal spray seems pretty self-explanatory, which is why, I guess, no one bothered showing me how to use it. You can't botch the nasal part, of course; I've never seen anyone put it in their ear. But the “spary” was, pardon the pun, a bit mystifying to me.
Whenever I felt the need, I would lean my head back so that I was staring up at the sky, insert the nozzle, and squeeze hard, sending a jet stream of prescription drugs shooting halfway to my brain. It burned, it hurt, and it worked, probably a bit to well.
Down from my sinuses would pour forth copious globs of mucus, along with rich, thick, crimson strains of blood. It didn't occur to me that this might be bad.
As an adult I've also lived in Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, and now Maryland. Michigan's spring allergies were very similar to New York's, but not as bad. Nebraska was quite reasonable, though hardly perfect. And as for Arizona, barely anything's alive in the dessert of the greater Phoenix metroplex, including the morass of suburbanites doing lord knows what behind their eight foot, cinder block privacy fences. And so, gratefully, I did not sneeze much during my one spring there. Heck, didn't have much mucus at all. Too dry. Just lots a cooters. That there's pickin' and flickin' country.
Maryland is rotten. Not as a state, but for springtime allergies. Overwhelming physical fatigue through much of April is usually the worst aspect of it, but a little runniness and the occasional sneezing fit is certainly on the agenda. My doctor, who's remarkably like a real doctor, not one of these modern cattle car operators, prescribes me a steroidal nasal spray.
I've since learned how to use it without causing too much cerebral hemorrhaging.
II. God Bless You
When I sneeze, and particularly when I really get going, the only thing I want is for it to stop. All of my desires are pointed in that one direction. But if I have just enough hubris to identify one other thing I'd like in that moment, it's to be left the fuck alone.
One sneeze? Okay, fine, whatever. But I dare say, nothing is more demanding of my attention that a real sneezing fit. And more often than not, one sneeze is not nearly enough with me.
But of course it can't be that simple. No one can seem to afford me the simple dignity of just leaving me alone to deal with that which is consuming me against my will.
Based on the Wikipedia entry for “Responses to Sneezing,” it seems like the practice of people saying something to you after you sneeze is a damn near universal social phenomenon. But, ya know, so is war.
And to be perfectly blunt, I think I'd rather be drafted into the military then have to listen to one more well meaning person, who's good intentions are paving a road right through my own personal Hell, say “God bless you” after I sneeze.
I suppose this is the point when anyone who's still reading this snot-stained diatribe throws up their hands and says, Enough is enough. After all, what kind of misanthropic monster speaks ill of those who only wish him well?
I plead guilty to the misanthropy, in a general sense. You suck. I mean, maybe not you personally. Hopefully not. Probably not. But you in the second person plural, for which English only has slang. Y'all. Youns. All a yous. Humanity writ large. You suck. Christ, just look around. How else can you explain the utter shit hole this planet is becoming? Who you gonna blame? The fuckin' elephants?
Anyway, here's the thing. As you might have figured out by now, I'm not usually the person who offers up a dainty “ah-choo” into a Kleenex, followed by a polite sniffle, and then calls it a day. No. I'm the miserable fuck who opens up a machine gun's worth of rat-a-tat-tat, sneeze after sneeze after sneeze, again, again, again, expelling what seems like every last droplet of moisture and whiff of air in a Wagnerian crescendo of nasal tympani and horns.
-God bless you.
-Th-Thank you . . .
-God bless you again.
-Uh, uh, uh, uh
-Oh Dear . . .
Holy shit, would you fuck off already! Can't you see I'm fucking busy? And not in some pleasurably perverse kinda way, but in that relentless My-Face-is-Fucking-Exploding kinda way.
How fucking selfish are you that you have to demandingly insert yourself into my misery just so you can make yourself feel better by pretending to offer me solace as my nose bursts like a string of firecrackers.
And make no mistake. It is demanding. Because if I don't respond with a “Thank you,” or physically acknowledge you in some way, then all of a sudden I'm the asshole here. If I don't go out of my way to graciously accept your unwanted charity, then I'm the selfish prick. If I ignore you, some goddamn stranger on the street, and instead devote my attention to grappling with my head's version of the bombing of Dresden, then somehow I'm the one in the wrong.
How fucked up is that?
And why the hell are you doing this anyway? Do you really think I need the goodwill of some invisible deity on high, lest this sneeze be the first step on my inexorable path towards Death's door? And if somehow, beyond reason, that's the case, do you also believe your idle supplication to Him will result in just such a blessing, perhaps because you've got a better broadband connection to Heaven than I do, or maybe because my own entreaties to Him, and indeed those from everyone who actually knows me, are doomed to fall on deaf ears?
Or are you just being “nice” by mindlessly adhering to an archaic social rite that's actually making the situation worse, not better? Because I can't help but notice that you don't habitually offer any trite clichés that implicitly demand a canned reciprocation to complete strangers when they happen to cough or wheeze or get bitten by a mosquito or stub a toe.
Cause ya know, that would just be weird, now wouldn't it.
III. The Poetry of Sneezing
When I was twenty years old, I wrote a Shakespearean sonnet about the horrors of springtime allergies. That was a quarter of a century ago. The thing was buried in some old looseleaf binder, a pile of which are down in the basement, but I managed to dig it up.
I've taken the liberty of brushing up this verse a little bit because, like everyone this side of Arthur Rimbaud, the poetry I wrote when I was twenty could use a little fluffing. Nevertheless, the following lines are mostly original, and are in every way true to the original intent, including the pompous allusions to Greek mythology and ending triplet. Most importantly, this modestly edited poem still strives to represent the grand season of torture.
Spring holds no amorous roses for me
Nor hyacinths to cheer on the new year
So while stately willow poses for thee
I soak its roots with bitter, steaming tear
Fresh cherry blossoms don't cradle any
Hopes of joy for me. Their soft, fleeting lives
Rather signal days and weeks so many
Of their thin, moist petals slicing like knives
Into my raw nostrils, spilling mucus,
blood streaked, onto the green, dewy grass. And
As you thank God for velvety fuchsias
I choke, cursing the ground on which they stand
While dandelions frolic round your knees
And everyone exalts Persephone's
Return to Demeter's embrace, I sneeze
IV. Sneeze vs. Cough
I don't remember exactly how old I was, but certainly a child, when I first heard someone voice what I found to be an utterly baffling sentiment: That one should prefer a sneeze to a cough.
In the years to come, I occasionally posed the question to many different people, and almost always received the same bewildering answer. The vast majority of people, if forced to do one or the other, would gladly sneeze over coughing.
Now, for the record, I'm not talking about a tuberculosis patient coughing up blood, for which there is clearly no sneezing equivalent. I'm just talking about regular old sneezes and coughs, some worse than others, but none a sign of terminal illness.
In this context, the pro-sneeze faction almost invariably cites the sense of relief that accompanies the conclusion of a good ah-choo.
There was some tension, and its sudden dismissal results in a minor euphoria. This is akin to the urban myth that a sneeze equals one-eight of an orgasm, or some such.
I can only assume that people who say such things are not sneezing the way I do. Either that, or they have vastly inferior orgasms.
In any event, for me there's nothing sexual about sneezing. When I'm done, I don't experience a quasi-orgasmic release, but rather an exhausted sense of relief. It's not like some dominatrix tied me off before allowing me ejaculate. It's more like I just got done being water boarded, am grateful to every god who's ever paraded before humanity that it's over, and am praying to all of them that it never happens again.
That's why for me, the choice is a no-brainer. I'll take coughs over sneezes, either individually or by the peck, any day of the week. And to be clear, I come here to muffle coughs, not to praise them. Both are symptoms of ill-health, either temporary or long termed. Both are unpleasant. And they can both come in seemingly ceaseless batches that aggregate into a tapestry of sorrow.
But there is a fundamental difference between the two. While a cough, and particularly a slew of them, can be quite unpleasant, coughs do not disorient me in the way that even the mildest of sneezes does.
Even the heaviest of heaving coughs are something that take place in the moment, in the here and now, and which I can not only anticipate, but stimulate if need be, and even moderate to some extent. But a sneeze is its own master, a demanding one at that, and in the end it is far more disorienting.
Even a single sneeze overwhelms my consciousness for a moment, and not in some pleasant, orgasmic way. Meanwhile, a series of consecutive sneezes can send me spinning into a cacophonous purgatory far worse than any holding pen for unchristened babies. It's kind of like a terrifying episode of The Twilight Zone, but with no plot, and only my depraved eruptions for dialog.
I don't begrudge anyone who would rather cough than sneeze. In fact, you might say I even envy them a little bit. That anyone could find sneezing to be at all enjoyable is utterly confounding to me. I can only conclude that they do it far less often and with far less severity than I do, and of that I am jealous.
So if after reading this prickly little dissertation, you find yourself at odds with my mean and petty words, then I beseech you to take pity on this wretched creature and know that his harsh sentiments spring from the anguish of a tortured soul and runny nose. And that every time I have cursed you, most sadly, it was all I could muster, mired as I am in the pained helplessness of merely wanting to be like you, free of this snotty yoke.
And thus, let us part on only the most forgiving of terms, with humility and modesty leading me to wish you all the best:
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com