A Sound of Thunder

Like it or not, we’ve changed our personal hygiene habits these last six months.  You’re wearing a mask because you choose to (or your governor mandates it).  You’re social distancing to be able to do things as simple as grocery shopping.  You may even be washing your hands longer (though I still can’t get through the “Happy Birthday” song twice).  But one habit hasn’t changed – I’m sure of it.  You’re sneezing as often as you normally would, and not necessarily because you’re sick.

How often do you sneeze?  The answer to that question is as varied as the number of people reading this post.  Sneezing is a highly personal habit, one you have no control over.  Your body needs to sneeze and will do so whether you fight it or not.  Technically, a sneeze is a “semi-autonomous, convulsive explosion of air from the lungs through the nose and mouth.”  In plain English, your body is fighting something irritating and sneezing helps to get rid of it.

I sneeze every day, without fail.  I know this because I can recall my last sneeze and the one before that; both within the last twenty-four hours.  More significantly, I sneeze twice at a time.  That’s another highly personal aspect.  Some sneeze once, others twice.  My dad sneezes consistently seven to ten consecutive times (to which he declares, “marvelous!”)  Consecutive sneezes either means a repeated effort to rid the irritant, or the body simply settling down in a reflexive sort of way.

My wife knows when I sneeze because I don’t hold back.  I feel one coming, I rear back, and I erupt for all the world to hear.  But once again, we all have our differences.  For some, it’s a sound of thunder.  For others, it’s akin to a cough.  Occasionally you’ll even hear a person squeak.  No matter the sound, it’s generally unalterable.  The body does what the body will do.

Stanford University once conducted a study and concluded a sneeze is the equivalent physiological response as one-quarter of a sexual orgasm.  Now how would Stanford know what one-quarter of an orgasm feels like?  Your one-quarter may feel different than my one-quarter.  Regardless, both responses release a bunch of endorphins and endorphins feel good.  Kinda makes you want to sneeze more often, doesn’t it?

An effort to control a sneeze can be downright comical.  In situations where you don’t want noise (church!), trying to avoid a sneeze can make it worse than just going through with it.  Picture the person anticipating a sneeze in the pews.  Deep breaths or holding the breath (count to ten!), pinching the nose, tilting the head back, and on and on.  The sneeze often comes anyway.

Trying to thwart a sneeze can be downright dangerous.  There’s no truth to the myth your eyeballs can pop out if you sneeze hard enough (though it’s not impossible to sneeze with your eyes open – try it).  But hold that blast in and you can damage blood vessels or the nasal cavity.  Best to just let the volcano erupt.  Even the mask naysayers can’t deny the value of today’s “mouthpieces” relative to sneezing.  A sneeze can emit up to 40,000 droplets of something you don’t want any part of.

What makes YOU superstitious?

Let’s put the superstitions to rest.  Your heart does not stop when you sneeze, even though there’s a quick break in the rhythm.  Nobody’s talking behind your back when you sneeze, nor does the number of times you sneeze indicate what they’re talking about.  There’s no relevant amount of good or bad luck with sneezing.  Finally, your soul won’t leap out of your body to be carried away by Satan (or for you atheists, your “breath of life”).

I like to think of my wife’s “God bless you!” as the protector of that last superstition.  She and I exchange the blessing unfailingly (religiously?) with every sneeze, as if not doing so will separate the soul from the body.  I suppose we could go with “Gesundheit” instead (since the Almighty certainly speaks German) but the English version somehow sounds more effective.  Here’s a coincidence for 2020: the very first “God bless you’s” were uttered after sneezes associated with the very first pandemic: the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century.

Sneezing can be encouraged, be it with pepper or snuff or some other artificial irritant.  Not for me.  My sneezes come often enough to simply deal with them as they do.  I’m sure you agree; the experience is not altogether unpleasant if you sense it coming.

A final nod to sneezing science-fiction fans, who may recognize this post’s title as one of Ray Bradbury’s very best short stories, from his collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun.  “A Sound of Thunder” was the tale of time-travel, dinosaurs, and seemingly innocent tampering with evolution – suddenly gone very wrong.  It’s as chilling a read today as it was at its publication almost seventy years ago.  And the “sound of thunder”?  It wasn’t a sneeze.  You’ll just have to read the story for the real meaning.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.