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Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is city editor of the Napa Valley Register.

There is a possible serious downside to writing this column. It may label me as an all-time office crank.

That said, here goes.

Whenever a Register coworker sneezes, the newsroom erupts in God-bless-yous. These supposedly comforting words explode around me like incoming mortar rounds. In allergy season, it’s deafening.

We’re not talking about reactions to heart attacks or the occasional choking. The trigger is the humble sneeze! A sneeze that causes no harm and may indeed be refreshing.

If I worked in a monastery, I’d expect invocations of the deity. But I work in a newsroom, a secular, not particularly spiritual place. We spend our days pecking away on keyboards like amped-up gerbils ... until there’s a sneeze.

A soft “God bless” might be a balm for the soul in a religious setting. In the newsroom where we obsess on crime and potholes, they don’t do anyone any good.

These rote reactions and misplaced condolences merely jam up the wheels of production.

Do I occasionally sneeze? Of course I do. I fight the urge as best I can, then I let loose.

If it’s at work, I instantly feel both relief and chagrin. Relief that I didn’t blow my head off. Chagrin that I’ve pulled two or three coworkers away from their jobs so they can sing out blessings.

I try to nip it by spitting out a preemptory “excuse me.” That’s accepted etiquette, right? And in a rational world that ought to be the end of it.

And sometimes it is, particularly among those most aware coworkers who have seen me cringe at their verbal effusions.

But for others, my “excuse me” has no effect. They bless me and bless me and bless me until I feel practically sanctified.

Why do we say what we say? Apparently there’s no mention of the practice in the Bible, at least not for sneezing.

Theories abound. It was believed in the first century that a sneeze was the body trying to rid itself of evil spirits. Or the reverse: a sneeze opened up the body to an evil spirit invasion.

During the plague years in the sixth century, the Pope supposedly commanded “God bless you” to protect the flock from disease.

I understand blessings during a plague. Those people didn’t have antibiotics or hand sanitizers. In the sixth century, I’d probably have been a major blessor too.

But in the year 2019?

God-bless-yous haven’t always been a newsroom thing. I don’t recall them back in our old offices on Second Street. Then again, those offices spanned an entire city block. The vast expanse may have consumed them.

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At our new place we’re bunched up in cubicles. No snort of any kind goes unacknowledged.

You know who sneezes most powerfully? My editor Sean.

His sneezes erupt from his private office and sweep across the newsroom like a sonic boom. They have what the military calls command presence.

If I were to react to Sean’s sneezes, I’d be inclined to salute. Job well done!

Only I don’t react. Instead, I brace myself for the wave of God-bless-yous aimed his way.

Our leader has sneezed! Bless him!

At this point you may be asking, what’s wrong with Courtney? Doesn’t he have more substantial things to worry about? Doesn’t he know he sounds like George Costanza?

Point well taken.

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Kevin can be reached at 707-256-2217 or Napa Valley Register, 1615 Soscol Ave., Napa, 94559, or kcourtney@napanews.com.

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City Editor

Kevin has been city editor since September 2010. He joined the Register in 1973 as a reporter. He covered Napa City Hall and assorted other beats over the years. Kevin has been writing his Napa Journal column on Sundays since 1989.