Happy I didn’t sneeze

(This is only a series of things that happened and what I have observed and read since the last time I wrote. No further commentary and analysis.)

A dear friend passed away peacefully in his sleep today.

It’s my parents’ 39th anniversary today.

Yesterday, literary critic, teacher, poet, and scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature Christopher Benfey wrote on the meditation of teaching and learning remotely. Like many classrooms, Benfey’s poetry class had also shifted towards e-learning, where he opts for an online platform called Moodle, of which according to him, “a name I associate—from my early days of trying to get the hang of it—with the progression from a bad mood to a muddle.” Because his classes consist of students in multiple timezones, he also chose to do asynchronous learning more so than requiring everyone to sign in Zoom video calls. In his post, he contemplated on the sense of distance, of slowing down, and in how technology, despite all of its wondrous affordances and ‘bringing people together’, could never actually, bring people together in some sense.

In his class, Benfey assigned his students to read and discuss William Carlos Williams’ poem about the road to the contagious hospital. Williams, according to Benfey, was a doctor, and this poem, how apt during this time, was written during the 1918 flu pandemic. According to Benfey’s interpretation, Williams’ poem was about a journey, especially as one of his students had told him about her experience being quarantined in a hospital in Hanoi, covering a distance “both in miles and in cultural difference, from South Hadley, Massachusetts, to Vietnam”. Every milestone of her journey through airports, medical checkpoints, and ambulances reminded her of the capacity of the pandemic — and in some ways, “like the Internet, both bridges distances and opens them wide open.” I keep thinking about the arbitrariness of borders, something I feel strongly about, when he mentioned this. Yet, like in how many situations, the pandemic still manages to highlight the class divides in our society.

I am also currently participating in a poetry exchange, where a group of people do, well, we exchange poems. It is surreal and also unfortunate to think that so many poems written from decades and years ago still ring true today.

Quartz Obsession posted an edition on sneezes, calling the sensation, which “might feel like a small explosion in your nasal cavity, but what it unleashes into the air has a name: a multiphase turbulent buoyant cloud.” Every sneeze produces as many as 40,000 tiny droplets, which is understandable now of how gross (and deadly) it could be. Even though nobody plans the intensity of the noise they are going to make when a tickle hits the nasal membranes, I think about the fact so many dads are never reluctant to ‘express’ it so valiantly, that we had a term — Dad Sneeze. From the edition, I learned that deaf people don’t sneeze, that we all make different sounds when we sneeze according to our cultural norms (and if you’re asking if cats meow based on the language where they are based in, yes apparently they do) as well as the responses when someone sneezes (the Serbs say “go away, kitten”, the Vietnamese respond with “rice with salt”, while the Latin Americans wish you “health, money, love” and the Turks, “live long and prosper”).

I also learned that a sneeze could have killed Martin Luther King Jr. In 1958, after someone plunged a 7-inch steel letter opener into his chest, the removal of the weapon was so intense as it was close to his aorta that a sneeze could kill him. He even wrote the account in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated:

I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in interstate travel. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Ala., aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.

Reading in my tabs:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s