Sunday, February 25, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 342: Biomythography - Note 84, Sadmares


The last time I had a nightmare sufficient to wake me, I was twenty-one. That fall, on the campus of Hampshire College, my girlfriend kept telling me about her dreams. Every breakfast for weeks, for months, I listened to those tales. My mind and body reacted oddly to the constant discussion of dreams. After enough time, a) I started remembering my own, b) I experienced more lucid dreams, and c) I experienced my last nightmare before having children. Those things changed our conversations.

In my last nightmare, I ran from a monster, turned around, discovered it was a large dog, and killed the dog. It may not qualify as a terror dream but it was enough to wake me, heart pounding. There was a horror to the triumph over the dog, plus fear and anger. After I had children, of course, I experienced occasional nightmares concerning the death of one child or another. Every parent has those, I think, or at least they seem to be common occurrences.

Until the death of my mother, though, I had never experienced a dream so sad I woke up from the surge of emotion. I've never even heard of other people having those. I didn't know the experience was one of life's options. Or that I would not have any other real option, myself.

My mother died on Memorial Day. The evening after was a long one, restless and full of family duties. When I finally felt I could sleep, the time was past midnight. I glanced at the clock as I forced myself to lie down.

I remained in bed for a self-disciplined minute, exhausted and fidgeting. When I closed my eyes, I fell asleep. I emerged into a blackness followed by a room with light green walls. I found myself striding toward a seat in the room. The furniture was white and cushioned. The area seemed a little like a hospital. But the room was quieter than I expected. The furnishings were in soft focus, glowing. Even as I took my spot, I didn't like the place. I knew I was waiting to receive news I didn't want to hear. In a moment, my mother came out. She was dressed in a green, short-sleeved shirt. She sat down in the chair next to me. Her eyes found mine. I stared back, knowing she was dead, knowing she had come to tell me about her death. Sorrow welled up in my chest as if I would burst. And I awoke.

My arms turned my body. I rolled out of the covers before I was completely aware of myself. And I stood in such a pang of anguish that for a moment I couldn't breathe.

My body heaved with slow inhale, deep and calm. I was awake. There was no question of getting back into bed. A sense of misery had enlivened every nerve in my body. In a minute, I got dressed. As I finished putting on my socks, I glanced at the clock. Ten minutes had passed since I forced myself to lie down.

The next night, I experienced more of the same. I slept for a few minutes at a stretch. Each time, I started doing something ordinary in my dream. My mother appeared beside me. Sometimes I spent a few seconds with her, feeling the grief well up inside and all around me. Then I awoke.

I rose, paced the room, and returned to bed to repeat the process. After about two and a half hours, I decided to stop trying to sleep. I started my workday early.

On the third evening, I slept almost a full night. I woke once in a feverish bout of dream-sadness. After that, I dozed with the deepness of the merely exhausted.


Four years later, my father fell and broke his hip. His doctors didn't want to operate because they thought anesthesia might kill him. They had to try, though, and he survived their operation. He felt much better after it.

Then the hospital administered opiates. Everything started going wrong. As had happened to him before under opiates, his digestion slowed and part of his intestine died. This time, unlike when he was sixty, the doctors declined to try to stop the spread of sepsis. He was eighty-three. They felt sure he wouldn't make it through a second operation in three days. Instead, they committed him to dying as the sepsis took over.

For a few days, he lay in a sort of in-between hospital care, not in a hospice ward but in a room posted with instructions on the limitations of his treatment. Instead of medicines, the staff increased his doses of morphine.

On the morning he died, I made these notes after I woke to go see him:

I dreamt about seeing my dad in Holy Cross. It was room 10, all normal, but my dad was unconscious. I was out in the hall talking with my son, Dylan Kyle, watching my dad through the glass.  Then my mom showed up in the hall looking about fifty-five. She had a baby carrier in her left arm and the infant Dylan Kyle in it. She was beaming, happy. But then I knew it was a dream. And I got really sad and woke up.

The night after his death, I wrote about a different sort of dream to my wife.

I was walking on the street carrying groceries. My father called me on the phone. I looked up. Although he was calling over my cell phone, I could see him in an apartment high up above. I knew it was white and green on the inside.

"I have done part of the crossword puzzle," he told me. He was dying. I knew he was dying. We had been through this before. He had been dying every night. Every night, over and over.

My father knew that he was dying, too. I could hear it in his voice.

"The crossword puzzle," he insisted. "Take a look at it when you come up."

I climbed the stairs to the apartment knowing that he would be dead when I got there.  A feeling of sadness swept over me, as I knew that it had before. But this time he had started the crossword puzzle. That was the thing. He had called because he had wanted me to know he'd left me something to do.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 341: Biomythography - Note 83, My Personality Type

My Personality Type

The popular personality tests used in business - the Myers Briggs Indicator, the Eyseneck, the Hogan Personality Inventory, Keirsey Temperament - are all junk. Well, maybe that's too harsh. Maybe they are just misused.

Underlying these measurement systems is the obvious ability of any quiz to classify people according to answers they give. Is the classification useful? The usefulness must be linked to the questions and whether they matter to why you're organizing or re-organizing your people.

Why are you sorting people?

Sometimes, you need to arrange individuals into teams. That's a time when we all want to understand who we're dealing with. A test can be useful in that situation. I admit I've met at least one good personality metric, a U.S. Army psychology regimen developed for building compatible teams. Long ago, the Army tried to build superteams of its best performers and they failed. Utterly. Gunnery squads from from tiny West Virginia towns, within which there were some members who couldn't read, were better than the superteams of best performing artillery gunners from across the country. Why? The Army tried to systematically uncover the reasons. They managed to do it, too, to a great extent. And they learned to build better teams.

I'm not going to go into the how or why. I've noticed the information about the Army system has disappeared from the Internet so I'm going to assume the Army has quietly pulled it back - probably because someone thinks it's useful.

Instead, I'm going to talk about DISC.

DISC stands for Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance. The terms could be anything, though; with the right questionnaire, sorting people into Hogwarts houses would be equally valid.

"Boss, I don't like it. This is bullshit," one of my staff murmured to me as he accepted his paper copy. His face wore a resigned, unhappy frown.

"Me neither." With an eye on our overboss, I sat down and started pencilling in answers. "Let's do it."

He sighed. "Sure."

My specific sub-culture at work consists of people who are notorious for not liking team-building exercises. Nevertheless, we were called upon to join in. We met in the main conference room with the rest of the staff and filled in our forms. My crew members whispered their complaints in low, careful tones.

As with most personality tests, we had to answer different forms of the question, "what are people like?" I felt so tired that I didn't try to game the system by filling in answers I knew my bosses would prefer. It probably wouldn't have helped anyway, since the DISC survey addressed most subjects in a narrow fashion. For example, I remember "Do people turn in assignments late?" as one line. There were other, similar options posed in the same, constricted, yes-or-no manner. Because of how each had been worded, there was no honest choice. No one could have truthfully answered anything other than "people turn in work late" because people do, sometimes.

The questions forced my answers and I didn't fight. I gave in to the over-simplified views even though I knew that each topic had to be used to categorize workers. So people must, as a rule, interpret the DISC questions and statements contrary to the actual words. I turned into a literalist, which is a very computer scientist thing to do, and finished my survey second out of a group of thirty even though I felt as if I had dwaddled through it, fuming about each wording and the inescapable logic of the narrow focus.

"We'll be back with the results in a minute," said one of the organizers. Her team graded them as we handed them in. Since they were using an apparently customized DISC with forty questions, the grading didn't take as long as 'full DISC.'

While we waited, I helped other early finishers adjust the labels for our DISC profile groupings. Following the guidance from a DISC moderator, we had posted signs around the room with eight designations. I moved a sign, found tape, and handed out pieces of tape to others who wanted to straighten up. The eight signs said, D (for direct/dominant), Di (dynamic), I (interactive/influential), Si (agreeable or trusting), S (soft-hearted), SC (cautious), C (reserved/unemotional), DC (disciplined and critical). We had them spread around eight 'corners' of the room.

"We're ready to begin the grouping," the moderators said when they re-entered the room. Due to luck of the draw, or perhaps because they used a last-in-first-out system as they graded, the announcement for my assignment came near the end. First, I got to watch as each staff member in turn walked to a DISC category sign. Many of them ended up in sensible locations, I noticed, although a few seemed mildly wrong.

"Eric," the shorter, darker-haired moderator announced. She picked up my paper and read from the top. "C-D."

She meant the DC group, which was the disciplined and critical people. As I stood up, to my shock, several women hissed. I heard a gasp escape my boss before she covered her mouth. Another supervisor covered her mouth, too. I paused. Then I continued my stroll toward my group. It had taken me a second to understand why everyone had such a strong reaction. The DISC process had lumped me together with the two unfriendliest people in the office.

These two stern women were both black and middle aged. They liked me well enough and I enjoyed working with them, too. Oddly, though, they didn't want to see me grouped with them. One of them crossed her arms and frowned. The other, shaking her head with a warm smile, leaned close as I arrived.

"I think you might be in the wrong place," she whispered.

"Maybe?" I allowed. I considered the reasons why it felt uncomfortable. Why were they perceived as unfriendly and I was considered warm and gentle? Being disciplined and being critical were both appropriate traits to assign to me. (So were the other categories, really, but that's how these exercises work.)

I glanced around. Women and men seemed distributed fairly evenly in the room. Black women had a pretty wide distribution, too, and I knew them all. These two in the DC category really were the most stand-offish, except maybe with me. They were infamous for not being friendly to their co-workers.

"He is really results oriented," the friendlier woman said to her more sullen companion.

"Huh." The comment made the woman's shoulders relax. "Yeah."

We talked about the questions for a few minutes. Maybe we should have been listening more to the moderators but we had gotten interested in what made us similar. And intrigued by what made us so different, too. Pretty soon, I realized that these women answered "people turn in assignments late" on the quiz with a sense of disdain. To them, other people weren't dependable. Ever. In fact, the reason they liked me was because I didn't over-promise things. I delivered what I said I would. They were prepared to be disappointed in me eventually, as they had been with everyone else, but so far, I was still acceptable.

"Okay!" Clap, clap, clap. The taller moderator strode forward. She brought her hands together, trying to get our attention.

"Okay, okay," said other women around our office, including the second moderator. The first moderator clapped three more times.

"Some of the people here feel they have been mis-categorized," she continued. "It happens pretty often with mid-level DISC questionnaires. We have an approved method of dealing with it. The DISC certification authority said our method is fine."

Her partner nodded.

"What you do is, you can make one diagonal move. You can walk from the SI sign to SC or you can walk from SI to DI. That means you can change one letter if your measured DISC scale has two letters. You can't go to a neighboring scale because that's not the way the questions work. You have to move on a diagonal."

I already knew where I planned to move. As I leaned toward it, the woman continued, "And you have to give a reason."

That made me snort. I already knew my reason. I'd come to the conclusion while talking to the others in my assigned scale.

At first, I was the only one to make a move. The call for a justification statement about the change made everyone else hesitate. But I already knew. And as soon as I'd moved from DC to DI, the moderators surged toward me. The exercise leader posed as if she were a reporter on the street who had caught a politician before he could escape to his car. Using her right fist, she leaned an imaginary microphone in my direction.

“You left the antisocial group," she said. "I mean, the skeptical and critical scale. Can you explain why?”

“People are awful,” I told her. A couple people gasped, including my boss. “But I love them.”

This brought on a second gasp, which modulated into a collective sigh. The room seemed to breathe easier. I heard someone giggle. Everyone smiled except my interviewer.

“Oh!” She cocked her left eyebrow.

From another diagonal, I saw an office mate practically skipping towards me. She was making her move and she knew her reason. She grinned like she had just finished laughing, which maybe she had.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 340: Gentle into the Night

Gentle into the Night 

Gaze with me into the darkness of the night
During our lazy stroll at the close of day,
Talking, holding hands in the waning of the light.

The first star twinkles in a blue twilight
And beside us rests a glow of orange and gray.
Let us share a smile as we pass from dusk to night. 

We have not triumphed. We have not reached our highest height.
We have tried and we fixed things along our way,
Talking, holding hands in the waning of the light.

In this trail of shadows, you are my heart's delight
You are the source of my excuses and delay
So I am amused by my dotage as I pass into the night.

My body will cool. My limbs will lose their youthful might. 
Still I am comforted by our habitual dance and sway,
Together, holding hands in the waning of the light.

In the dusk I toil, my eyes failing their mortal sight.
Far from family, on rocky paths my footfalls stray
But with you in mind, I am at ease as I pass into the night.

If I am blessed to be with you again, the evening set to right,
We shall in good company keep our work and play 
Together, holding hands in the waning of the light.

I will walk at whatever pace you need into the coming night.
Together, holding hands in the waning of the light.

– Eric Gallagher, for Diane, 2024

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 339: A Sort of Logic

Not Even Not Zen 339

This is a fragment of writing that will likely never appear in a story. I don't have a place for it currently, at least, and no plans to build around it. The dialogue would fit into a stage routine. Nothing else seems likely. The stage routine would likely have to be disjointed.

The Process of Induction

"Therefore an orbit is a rotation because it comes from ..."

"A rotato?"

The instructor lowered his arm. He looked at his student for a moment as if he did, in fact, believe his ears but he wished he didn't. 

"Perhaps I misheard," he said in a voice that reverberated with 'but I doubt it.'

"You know ... a rotato?  Using logic."

"Pray tell, what is the logic you say you have involved?" The fellow's voice sounded weary but his upturned eyebrow revealed that he was curious. 

"Vodka is a potation because it is distilled from a fermented potato."

"Odd, but I suppose that's true."

"A rotato is implied. An orbit is a rotation because ..."

"Ah," the instructor interrupted. He didn't know quite what to say yet. "Ah. Aha."

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 338: Biomythography - Note 82, Die Metzgerei

Die Metzgerei

This is a fragment of a memory. 

Walking as a toddler was exhausting. When I recall details from incidents like this one, though, I'm surprised to rediscover my child-like sense of how difficult it was to move at the pace of grown-ups. In the last half of toddler-hood, it did get easier. Early on, when this takes place, my exhaustion was a burden on everyone, including my parents.

My understanding that I was a burden was limited. I had a vague sense I should be faster. I should walk for longer without needing picked up or getting to rest on a bench. 

I may have been two, about to turn three.

"Look, I'll give you a treat," my mother promised. 

We stood on the street, blocks from home. My legs ached. My eyes had fallen half shut. I'd missed my usual nap time an hour before. I had burst into tears twice on the shopping trip. But my mother needed to visit what locals called der metzger, the butcher. 
"Lollipop?" I asked. I knew the butcher kept a jar of them on the counter next to his cash register. My father had refused to get me one, last time.

My mother nodded. I stifled my sobs and accepted her hand over mine. She guided me into the shop. A bell on the door rang. I shivered at the noise. 

Immediately, the scents of disinfectants and raw, red cuts of meat wafted over me. From experience, I knew parts of the butcher shop smelled weird and other parts were good, especially when I was hungry. Bright red cuts of meat lay behind glass cases. Most of them shone, they were so vivid, dramatic, and neatly done. The fat around the edges glistened white. Below the cases, the floor looked dull. It smelled of leaf dust and concrete grit tracked in from the sidewalk. The stone tiles of the shop looked clean, I knew, but I could smell the detritus from shoes. More, I felt the mustiness of centuries. This building had been around for hundreds of years. And as we passed near the register, I smelled sugar. 

The lollipops sat like a bouquet of perfect flowers in a brownish, clay jar. The jar rested on the counter. My mother let me gape at the arrangement for a few seconds, those yellow circles atop white sticks, each in a cellophane wrapper. Then she took a number from a machine that dispensed customer numbers and we waited. 

Rationally, I'm aware it must have taken time to get a cut of meat. It always did. But I don't remember waiting. I have a vague sense of dialogue above me. It took place in a mix of English and German. I may have fallen asleep on my feet for a while. I may have talked with another child in the line. None of it made much of an impression.

I don't remember getting the lollipop. Suddenly, I had one in my right hand. That part is clear.

I gaped in wonder. I raised it to my mouth. When it hit my tongue, I shuddered. I was startled by the lemon, sour taste. A moment later, I slurped on it again, drawn to the sugar. I suppose I would have eaten anything mixed with enough sweetener. Above me, the conversations continued in English and in German. After a while, I got the impression that the butcher thought my mother and I were cute. Or maybe he was just being nice. He was a large, scary man. He had a dark shirt and a white apron, smeared with blood stains. Usually, his demeanor was stern and demanding. This time, he had decided to not to charge us for my treat. 

"Say thank you," my mother whispered down to me. Suddenly, she seemed embarrassed. It was certainly true that, by the rules of our house, I hadn't been polite.

I took the treat out of my mouth. But the sight of the butcher, even when he was smiling, intimidated me. He put his hands on his hips. He tapped his foot once as he waited. Before I could speak, I had to step behind my mother's leg. I paused, trying to remember how best to be polite.

"Danke shoen," I said. I'm not sure why I answered in German. It seemed the thing to do.

The huge man could not have been more delighted. He must have expected an American toddler in his shop to issue a grudging word of thanks in miserable English. Instead he got a formal, extremely polite 'thank you' from me and it was in German. Startled, he roared with a laugh. His voice was so loud, it frightened me all over again.

"Bitte!" he shouted.

I burst into tears. 


As usual, even this brief memory is more fragmented in my mind than it appears on a page. I'm guessing at some of the dialogue and inferring a sense of continuity for the event. Internally, the aspect of this that stands out most in my recollection is the deep voice behind the word 'bitte.' It frightened me so much, it made me remember some of the details leading up to it, I suppose. 

I notice in my description of the butcher shop and elsewhere, too, how the smells from my childhood seem exaggerated as I write about them. But I'm being true to my memories. 

Before we learn to make sense of the world visually and to describe it to others, again mostly visually, the rest of our senses may loom a bit larger. 

When I first saw spaghetti on my plate, I was five years old. The sauce-soaked pasta looked disgusting. I refused to eat it. I was risking a spanking when I said no. My parents weren't patient about food, usually. This time they were, at least a little. They waited. As the lump of leaking stuff sat in front of me, smelling better and better, I gained a different understanding of food. I learned the sight of spaghetti didn't have to be associated with the disgust reserved for entrails. 

The sense of smell won again.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 337: Biomythography - Note 81, Schvartz Pater

Schvartz Pater

For Germany and for December, the weather was good. There was no snow on the ground. My mother had dressed me warmly, in layers. The outer layer included my plaid driver's cap and heavy jacket. 

I squinted away from the sun as we walked. The sky was clear above except for a few, wispy clouds, which meant the day felt too bright. Breezes swept across the street. They came in gusts, always unexpected by me, and they chilled my ears and face. However, my mother kept my hand in hers. I constantly felt her warmth. Once or twice, she stopped to visit shops along the street. When she did, I took shelter from the wind behind her legs.

"Home!" I begged as my mother engaged in a long conversation with another woman from the American military base. I pulled on her jacket sleeve. "Please home!"

"I don't know where your father is," my mother sighed. "He should have met us here."

"Home, please!"

After I continued pleading for ten minutes or so, she nodded. She said goodbye to her acquaintance. We walked forty meters and turned a corner onto our street, only a few blocks from our home. There, we wandered into an unexpected throng of people. They lined the sidewalks on either side of the road. We heard noises from pedestrians striding up the middle of the asphalt. To my puzzlement, some of the people wore costumes, rough leather on the men, green dresses on the women. A few of the women sparkled.

In my toddler range of experience, no one walked in the middle of the streets in Bitburg. No one wore outlandish clothes. Adults would shout if you tried either of those things. I stared at the approaching parade, fascinated.

The rough-looking men passed through. A pair of wooden carts followed them, pushed by boys and girls, then the women who sparkled. A man in a blue and white robe marched toward us. Some of the Germans in the crowd muttered a phrase I knew, 'Heiliger Nikolaus.' Someone else said, 'Sinter Klaus.' I started bouncing on my toes. I wasn't sure about Nikolaus but I knew Sinter Klaus. He gave out gifts.

"Oh, it's Saint Nicholas," my mother said.

As the figures grew closer, I noticed how the saint looked thin and stern. He thumped along with a tall, golden scepter. Once or twice, he stopped to threaten us by waving it around. He seemed ready to bash anyone who didn't act pious enough.

"He’s scary," I whispered.

"He's fine. He's good," my mother assured me. "He's not going to hurt you."

I remembered my father telling me that Saint Nicholas was holy and benevolent. One of his partners, though, was the dangerous one, Schvartz Pater.

Every town in Germany and, in fact, every municipality in Europe had a different tradition for Saint Nicholas. I didn't know the differences then. Even now, the town traditions are changing slightly every year. I don't think anyone can really know all the differences in all the places in Europe. As a toddler I had a basic level of awareness from my parents. I knew Bitburg had a folklore about Schvartz Pater (here, I am spelling it the way I heard it as a toddler). I may be confused in my fragmented memory. I was seeing the pageant as a small group of volunteers in a relatively small town played it out in the middle of the 1960s. 

Behind and to the right of Saint Nikolaus strode the bad guy, Schvartz Pater. Pater was thin and moved in an exaggerated way. His legs took him on a course that weaved from side to side, not the straight path that Nikolaus chose. He wore a grey jacket, shabby trousers, and a bag thrown over his shoulder. In his off-hand he carried a thin bundle of sticks. He had smudged his face lightly with charcoal but he had neglected to smudge his hands.

Even to my three-year-old eyes, Schvartz Pater was a chimney sweep. In this particular parade, he had dressed very much like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, a movie I had recently seen on German television. I didn't understand a lot of the movie but I loved the Dick Van Dyke character. The figure of Schvartz Pater was meant to scare children but the local actor who played him hammed it up so much that he smiled, enjoying himself. He seemed ready to burst out into a dance with penguins. I didn't find him anywhere near as threatening as Heiliger Nikolaus.

"Oh, there you are, Ann." Apparently, my father had arrived. He didn't smell as much like cigar or pipe smoke as he usually did, at least not on a windy day in the outdoors. I hadn't noticed him approaching. Although I must have glanced at him, the sight of my father could not compete with the parade. I don't remember how he looked. When I noticed Heiliger Nikolaus looming close, though, I backed up.

My parents chuckled. So did a few other adults nearby.

"Be careful," my father warned. "If you're bad, Schvartz Pater will put you in his sack."

Many of the Germans nearby nodded. They understood English well enough to hear the warning. They approved.

My father had explained it several times before. If parents felt a child of theirs wasn't obeying instructions and needed a good scare, they could pay Schvartz Pater to pretend to kidnap him. The parents would act helpless, of course, as if under a magical spell from Heiliger Nikolaus. Schvartz Pater would put the child in his sack. Then he would carry him for a while until the child cried. Pater and Nikolaus, maybe as a team, would make the child agree to be good and listen to his parents. Nikolaus would order Pater to release the boy (well, it was almost always a boy) on the condition that he improve himself and listen to his long-suffering parents. 

The fact that my parents had explained this as I was reading (or, when younger, simply looking at) books of German fairy tales, made the sight of Schvartz Pater seem almost friendly. Heiliger Nikolaus strode by and he paused to berate someone for not being holy enough. His presence intimidated me but, fortunately, he kept moving. Behind him, Pater tapped someone with his bundle of sticks - or merely tried, as the boy dodged - and he chastised some other youngster. When he passed me, though, he crouched and gave me a big smile, just for an instant, then he rose and marched onward.

I didn't want the parade to leave. Most especially, I didn't want to let the chimney sweep Schvartz Pater escape my sight. But I was surrounded by adults. They loomed. They seemed to exist in a huge, frightening world of walking in the street, shouting, and waving. It was all too much. I stood frozen, gaping at the characters as they left. If they had circled around the block, I could have gawked at the parade all day.


Zwarte Peter

The above is my dim memory of an experience with a character I remember hearing as Schvartz Pater. The scene had to be from Bitburg or Hamburg. Those cities were the only two in Germany with army bases where my parents taught after I was born.

Zwarte Peter, though, is a character I've read about as an adult. That makes him different. Do I need to have an opinion on customs in another land where Zwarte Peter is a black man, a freed slave who serves Heiliger Nikolaus? Not necessarily. I'm almost certainly under-informed. 

I'm aware of the history enough to know Zwarte Peter was a character created out of good intent. An abolitionist wrote him into the Christmas Pageant stories to show that black men could be good, too. But he seems like a bit of an afterthought in most of the European celebrations, a token, and when he plays the role that Schvartz Pater or Krampus plays in other towns, well, it's confusing to outsiders, I'm sure. The only dark-skinned character is an enforcer for Saint Nicholas and kidnaps children? Great. You can see how any of the few dark-skinned immigrants to Germany might be bothered to see Peter as the only example of an African visible in the parade.

You would think most German townsfolk would shrug and say, oh well, it's time to let this part if the story drop out. But no, once something is established for a generation, it's loved by anyone who grew up with it. People like traditions. They like obedience in children, too, and Zwarte Peter helps to reinforce it.

One obvious solution to the European image problem with Zwarte Peter, if the various towns regard it as a problem at all, would be to include a number of other African or Moorish characters in the celebration stories. That way, Zwarte Peter would not be such an obvious token. It wouldn't play badly to have him an enforcer, even, if other characters who looked somewhat like him played the parts of (for example) Reindeer Herder or Spring Approaching. They wouldn't have to push out established characters. Add more in.

It's worth pointing out that Saint Nicholas himself grew up in what is now Turkey. He was lean and pious, by most accounts, but surely it's reasonable to portray him as fairly dark skinned, too. 

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 336: Biomythography - Note 80, On Novocaine (III)

On Novocaine 
Part III

When my wife got fully employed, we switched to her insurance. We explored our new healthcare options. I settled on a dentist after years of searching. The reason I settled on one was unrelated to our insurance, unfortunately. (It was unfortunate for our finances, not our health. Our health improved with a better dentist.)

We had moved from practice to practice while we tried to find dental care we could tolerate. Finally, through a recommendation, I located an excellent dentist. Unfortunately, he did not take any insurance. At all. I was shocked by how expensive he was. But despite his higher costs, I brought the family into his offices. I'm cheap, yes, but I wanted all of us to benefit from his care.

Some professionals have a deft touch. They are so much better than others you would think they were in a different, higher calling. He was one. He also took a 'no pain' approach to his practice, which I felt was an impossible but noble goal. He came surprisingly close to achieving it. In retrospect, his personality helped. He talked me through the procedures. He acted as if I were interested in the art of dentistry. He made it interesting. With him, root canals seemed routine. Years ahead of anyone else, he declared that enamel fillings and caps were his standard. He studied the results of each procedure with care and taught me not to accept sub-standard work. 

"Speak up if something doesn't feel right," he would say. He knew from his first look into my mouth that I had a tendency to accept bad work. 

He also noticed my twinges of pain before I did during each procedure. He renewed my doses of novocaine when he felt it was appropriate. His careful attentions lulled me into feeling I was normal with respect to my body chemistry. Well, I mostly was, I suppose. But everyone responds a little differently to medicines. Everyone fits into the human range of reactions. It's rare to find a person who has the typical response every time to every treatment. 

Just as it turns out hardly anyone has a normal body temperature, it's unlikely anyone has a completely typical internal chemistry. 

The Final Clue

After the birth of my third child, I talked to my doctor about getting a vasectomy. She gave me a referral to a specialist less than a mile away, a woman who did the procedures on an out-patient basis. (As it turns out, the operation is almost always done in an out-patient way. I had never given it any thought before.) 

I reported to my first appointment and found it was mostly an explanation. I had to listen and fill out forms saying I agreed to have the procedure done. I don't remember any other preparation. My second appointment with her was the operation. 

As with many previous procedures, all with dentists, this one started with a shot of novocaine. The surgeon did such a skillful job of it, though, I don't remember the injection. My first vague recollection is of her testing the results.

"Do you feel this?" she asked.

"Yeah, a bit." I couldn't see what she was doing but I could tell the location on my body. 


She administered another dose, possibly the third in her series. She returned a few minutes later.

"Can you feel this?" she asked. She poked me where she was planning to make her incision. 

"A little."

"Does it hurt?"

"No." Now that I had an idea of what I should say, I tried to let her know it was fine to proceed. I wanted her to get on with the operation. "I can always feel pressure, heat, and cold after novocaine. But my dentist goes ahead and drills anyway. It's fine."

She had finished her pre-surgery preparations earlier. She had tidied up around me after the last shot. There really wasn't much more for her to do except start cutting. So she positioned her chair, sat in it, adjusted her position relative to me, and made the first cut. I felt the pull of the incision but there was no pain. 

I smelled rather than felt the soldering iron when she burned the ends of the vas deferens shut. It was something I had expected in a rational way. The reality seemed a bit different, not bad but definitively medical. Five or ten minutes passed as she worked. I wasn't paying attention to the clock. After a while, she started on the other side. 

This time, I felt the cauterization. 

No location on a human body is a good one to feel searing heat. Places where lots of nerves cluster together are even less ideal. But as my awareness grew more acute, I surveyed my situation. I understood that the doctor couldn't stop. Today, she had to operate alone. For whatever scheduling reason in her small practice, she had no assistant to prep the equipment, to help her pause what she was doing, or to administer another dose of novocaine to me. There was nothing I could do except lean into the sensations, accept them, and keep as still as possible to avoid distracting her. 

The novocaine continued to wear off. After the first burn, there was a second. The sense of it wasn't much worse but it felt janglier, more alive in my nerves. When my flesh stopped searing, I shivered. The contrast in temperature felt so strong, I couldn't persuade my body to ignore it. Next, the doctor grabbed her needle and thread. At the first stab from her, my body shook. 

"You're feeling it, aren't you?" she lifted her head to grimace at me. 

"A bit, yeah." The needle jab had felt like a sewing accident.

"Shit." She shook her head at me, reproachfully. She glanced around and performed the same mental calculus I had. She had no one to help her. By now, she had observed I was a hell of a bleeder, too. She had complained about it and made me realize I'd forgotten to mention it ahead of time. I should have. I had known how doctors sometimes found it inconvenient. If I'd been thinking better, more in advance of all this, I would have mentioned how fast novocaine wore off on me. 

"I don't think I can stop," she announced.

I nodded. 

"Try to hold still."

The next few minutes was a good exercise in accepting sudden pains. Although the novocaine hadn't worn off completely, I possessed the full range of sensations in my skin and the flesh underneath. I felt every pierce and pull for every stitch. The jabs produced the most reactions from my body, I thought, and I concentrated on holding still each time. I mostly succeeded in the aftermath to the reflex. But the pull of the thread through my skin produced its own teeth-jangling sensibility. It hurt but, more distinctly, it felt odd.

"Wow," she said as she tightened the last set of stitches. "Wow."

"Everything okay?" I asked. 

"Yeah. We're good."  She kept working on the tie-off or whatever the last step was. I couldn't see most of it. "You're really feeling this pretty intensely, I can tell."

"You can?" I thought I'd been holding still. "I was trying to be really good. To stay really quiet."

"Well, you were good. You held still."  She finished and rose from her chair. She took a deep breath and relaxed into a smile. "But you made some noise."

"I did?" I hadn't been aware of it but, thinking back, I definitely had heard myself emit some kind of sound. 

Just as with my previous injections, the painkiller for my vasectomy wore off early. At this point, I was sort of ready to learn the lesson. Although I'm happy with novocaine, I have to say it has a short-lived effect on me. That is, whatever a doctor or dentist seems to expect in terms of deadened nerves, my body gives them about forty percent of the time they're looking for. 

If they estimate correctly with most of their patients, I suppose that means something in my metabolism eats up the novacaine a little faster in me for some reason. I don't know why. I also don't know how often it happens but my impression from the vasectomy surgeon is that it's fairly rare. My impression from my best dentist, though, is the opposite. He recognized immediately when the painkiller was wearing off. So it can't be too unusual - just enough to surprise the doctors and dentists who haven't administered topical painkillers to enough patients. There must be a reasonably-sized minority of people who live on my end of that particular spectrum. 

The real lesson, maybe, is that I need to speak up. We all do. We need be convincing about our past experiences or at least coherent when we describe them. A doctor might not want to believe a patient who is unusual in some respect but, when you're the patient, you still have to do your part. 

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 335: Biomythography - Note 79, On Novocaine (II)

On Novocaine
Part II

Every teen sustains occasional injuries. And when I did, my parents talked to me about seeing doctors. Usually, they decided it wasn't worth the expense. From my parents attempts to medicate me at home, I learned that aspirin made me sick but didn't do anything for pain or swelling. Motrin (ibuprofen) didn't do anything, either. Neither did diluted whiskey. Or anything someone rubbed into my skin. 

The 1970s were an age when treatments for pain were considered suspicious. The nation's participation in wars had led doctors to administer opiates to soldiers, who then became addicted. For that reason and for others, the federal government launched multiple campaigns against drugs. News channels told us there was a heroin epidemic. Even most of the known over-the-counter painkillers were, at the time, still opiates. Everyone was aware how horribly addictive they could be. The next best known painkiller was cocaine, great for topical relief. But it made complaints about injuries seem even more suspicious.

The societal opinion on pain was that it builds character. It's good. Individuals were responsible for their attitudes toward their bodies. You had to make your mindset a healthy one. 

Sometimes my parents waited a few weeks to see if my fractured bone or twisted joint would heal on its own. If it didn't heal, they made sure I got medical treatment. These were a few of the things that required nurses or doctors:

A high ankle sprain
An asthma attack
A bone fragment that locked my elbow
Double pneumonia
A crushed knuckle
A dramatic allergic reaction

When any of these started to seem threatening, my mother packed me up and drove me to the Kaiser Permanente offices. Kaiser rented series of red brick and glass buildings in Rockville where they kept their cheapest doctors and dentists in their insurance plan. From the staff there, I learned how prescription painkillers didn’t do much for me either. Codeine improved my symptoms at the cost of brain fog. I hated it. Percocet and Vicodin didn't do anything at all.

The doctors were awfully careful about the Vicodin anyway.

Only one treatment worked. It relieved pain but it wasn’t administered for pain. It relieved symptoms for sprains, asthma, and hives. The treatment was steroids. 

On a couple occasions, I got steroid shots. Once, after our neighbors burned a pile of poison ivy as I worked outside, I arrived at Kaiser in such alarming condition I not only got a shot but a prescription of prednisone to ensure I could breathe and, hopefully, see. Nowadays, everyone connects steroids to professional athletes cheating but, when they first came out in medical treatments, they immediately showed they were obvious improvements over the medicines they replaced. 

During the 1980s and 1990s, I noticed the standard treatments for pain were getting incrementally better. A few of them, like the prescription steroids, improved quality of life by reducing negative symptoms. Some other advancements did nothing much, medically. When I finally got health insurance and, years later, returned to a dentist, I discovered the procedure now was to give novocaine swabs prior to administering shots. It's a trivial improvement. But painless injections sure made me happier to go for my procedures.

Injuries that got no pain medication:

a broken bone in my foot
a fractured wrist
a broken metacarpal bone

Procedures worthy of novocaine:

root canals at the dentist
a vasectomy

A condition worthy of trying everything, apparently:

a zoster (shingles) infection

I didn't go to the doctor about shingles until it progressed so far I couldn't sleep. I was working multiple jobs and scheduling myself for five hours of sleep, maximum, so I really needed the unconsciousness part of my day to happen. But the disease kept waking me if I moved, eventually waking me even if I breathed deeply. (You know you've waited too long when the doctor brings in other doctors. The specialist even invited trainees to see my 'classic case.') At first, my GP prescribed tramadol for the pain and swelling. It did nothing. She upped the dose. I took four at a time. Still nothing. 

I returned to her office and told her honestly what I was doing and said I needed to sleep. She put me on hydrocodone. That didn't work, either. She moved me to oxycodone, the maximum legal amount of it. Again, popping them four at a time (the most I dared), I still felt no effects. I returned to her office.

"I just need to sleep," I said.

"Well, I agree." Hands on hips, she looked at my infection, which was improving a bit under the antiviral medications but still looked bad. "I wish the opiates did something for you. Clearly, they don't. I want to try you on something new, a nerve blocker."

"Sound good," I said without asking questions. 

"Read the side effects carefully," she said. She handed me a prescription for gabapentin. 

Gabapentin works - for me, at least. Although it took a couple days to build up in my system, I got to the point where I could take gabapentin and sleep. I had to be careful with the timing and dosage because I certainly couldn't do anything else. I couldn't drive a car. I couldn't walk without a hand on the wall. Gabapentin gave me vertigo like I'd never had before. But it was worth it. I slept at night. 

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 334: Biomythography - Note 78, On Novocaine (I)

On Novocaine

In the 1970s, everyone in the United States seemed to be suspicious of pain. Stating that you were in discomfort made your doctor's eyes narrow. He would put you on his naughty list right then. Pain was a precursor to demanding opiates, which led next, obviously, to heroin, which meant you were some kind of junkie. You couldn't admit to feeling pain without being a junkie any more than you could admit to being an atheist without being a commie. Culturally, your best bet was to let your arm fall off and hope a nurse would leap to the right conclusion from it.

Dentists were the one sort of medical professional who could admit their patients were in pain. In fact, they discussed it openly. One of them introduced me to novocaine. 

What a Pain, Generally 

I grew up with a lot of martial arts sparring sessions. They give you a nice approach to your body. Sharp twinges become less alarming. You learn the difference between a kick that stings and one that injures. Even in real fights with people hitting their hardest, a blow taken is usually not an injury (not a serious one, anyway) and it's good to know. You learn to see or feel the difference in other people, which is helpful.

Endurance sports like swimming lend you a familiarity with aches, cramps, and soreness. You sense the difference between a muscle spasm and a tear. You learn to persevere when your arms and legs won't move. If you're persistent enough, you feel the differences between muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Humans have a wide array of internal chemoreceptors, cutaneous receptors, and stretch receptors. You can learn to pay attention to them.

Being tormented by adults or bigger kids, the kind of sessions where a bigger person pins you and you can't escape, doesn't seem to give most people the same kind of physical insights. Yet the insights are there to be had. You can lean into the torture.

My experiences with leaning-in led me in the wrong direction about novocaine.

First Novocaine 

"My wisdom teeth came in two years ago," I complained to my mother one day. I was seventeen. She had herded me into her car to drive me to the dentist. I slumped in the seat and leaned into the corner by the window, away from the future. "They're fine. It's dumb to take them out."

"The dentist says they're pressing against your other teeth." She always took the side of the medical professionals, no matter what they said. We'd had similar conversations before. I suspected the dentist was drilling and filling cavities that didn't exist. This extraction seemed like more of the same.

(A year later, when the dentist announced I had twenty-two cavities, I refused to go back. The things he claimed were cavities looked about the size of dust motes, even when enlarged on my x-rays. Fifteen years later, I visited a dentist again. The next x-rays showed I had three cavities. So I think I was right.)

I remember way too much about the extraction, so I'm going to skip a lot of details. You know the weird, half-clean, half bacterial smell of a dentist office. You've heard the banter between the assistants and the dentist. My dentist talked a lot that day because he knew I was suspicious of the extraction. He allowed how, yes, my enamels were fine except for my wisdom teeth. Then he warned me that my mouth wouldn't stay healthy if he didn't remove those last molars.

"I've got great novocaine," he said. This was his selling point.

"No laughing gas?" I asked. My previous dentist had used nitrous oxide on me for every procedure.

"That's old stuff," he sneered. "It distracts you but it doesn't deaden the pain. Novocaine eliminates your nerve sensations. I'm going to have to break your teeth off from your jaw, remember. So no, no laughing gas."

"But you're going to give me a shot in my cheek."

"Yeah." He nodded.

"Ugh." As a child and teen, I had gotten eight years of allergy shots. I took them twice per week at first, then once per week. The needles had entered the flesh of my upper arms, which is not a bad place. Nevertheless, they hurt every time.

Eventually, I sat down and let him give me the shot. It burned, of course. I tried to lean into it but the sensation was so sharp, it surprised me even when I expected it. A couple minutes later, the dentist returned to give me another in the same cheek. It didn't hurt as much because my jaw was numb from the first time. He inserted a bunch of clamps in the back of my mouth and screwed them down to my wisdom teeth. The clamps, as they went in, looked like medieval torture devices, thumbscrews for those pesky bits of wisdom.

After the dentist got all the contraptions in place, he dipped into his supplies for another syringe. He sank a needle into my gums. It hurt like a needle. After the third shot, though, I finally grew numb enough for him to start his cuts. It wasn't too hard to move my spirit toward the remaining pain, to take it in and enjoy the living experience of it.

The procedure seemed to involve a lot of blood. The assistant tried to keep me from seeing too much of it but there was enough to make her scramble for more equipment. Within ten minutes, the throbbing pains were back, too. Each time I got cut, it felt like a stab wound. I leaned into the sensation. 

The sensations grew. I leaned in more. 

I had read lots of old adventure stories, comic books, and war novels that featured torture. (Tintin had gotten thrown into a torture chamber, probably more than once. War heros suffered in them, too.) In all of the stories, the main characters remained fearless despite the torment. Mentally, emotionally, and physically I leaned in as if I were accepting my disfigurement and death at the hands of torturers. 

At some point, even though I had accepted the sensations and the dentist was chiseling out pieces of tooth without too many problems, he could tell I was feeling it. He administered another shot. He resumed the extraction of bone fragments from the upper right. By the time he got to my lower jaw, he could tell something was wrong with the novocaine.

"It shouldn't wear off this quickly," he murmured to his assistant. "Isn't this the same stuff as yesterday?"

"Yes. It was a nearly full tube."

The dentist administered another shot. Out loud, he started to worry about how many novocaine dozes were advisable. He kept talking and blaming the assistant. He gave me another dose. He did it again. He administered the last of the tube. The remaining painkiller wore off quickly, too. By the time he broke off my bottom wisdom tooth, I understood pretty well why tooth pulling was used as a form of torture in so many countries. I felt everything clearly. Even the clamps on my teeth, although they sat unmoving, flared with their additions of misery. When the dentist started his stitching procedure in my gums, I felt every jab of the needle. I felt every flap of loose flesh. I leaned into every spasm. My legs and fingers twitched involuntarily.

At some point, I became delirious with agony. My sensations got confused. Stabs of pain created swirling lights in my vision. The dentist, to his credit, ignored his circumstances and carefully finished his sewing of my gums, top and bottom.

On my way out, he gave me more painkillers, which I dumbly refused, so he gave the pills and a prescription to my mother.

Although the extractions may have been unnecessary (although certainly not unusual), in retrospect the pain was not his fault. It took me twenty-three more years to understand my body's reactions to novocaine and other painkillers.

Back in 1978, though, the reaction most on my mind was my dentist and his assistant. I had to return a week later for more extractions. The team said they would remove my two remaining wisdom teeth. 

This time, although the novocaine would wear off quickly after every shot, I would expect it. 

The dentist would only half expect it. During the second procedure he would grow convinced that, somehow, it was my fault. He was right.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 333: Biomythography - Note 77, Good (Enough) (Learning to be Mediocre, Pt. 6)

Good (Enough) at Basketball

Part VI


The day was bright. The store was crowded.

When I wasn't shopping with my family, though, the background of my life was different than in the years before. For a while, I had been working in the NIH Clinical Center. I was a contractor with them and I'd gotten fifty percent raises for two years in a row. My family had climbed above the poverty line. We didn't buy our groceries on credit anymore. We were still shopping for groceries three times a week, of course. We had a couple of kids. We felt the continual pressure to provide boxloads of crackers, juice, peanut butter, and diapers.

As we pushed a cart through the local Food Lion, I saw a former Hood College student striding my way down the freezer aisle. To my surprise, he sprang forward before I could wave. He had recognized my family right away.

I'd played with this guy during the Hood lunch hour basketball games but my wife didn't know him. She turned her attention to the kids, who didn't seem much interested in the strange, new adult.

"How's school?" I asked as we shook hands. He was much taller than me but he managed to give me a shoulder hug.

"Well, I just graduated," he said.

"Great!" We stood with hands on shoulders for a moment. I congratulated him and tried to catch up on his life. We chatted long enough for my wife to decide she should take the kids to a different aisle where they could drool over the cereal boxes. That let her escape the overly cool air and the smell of frozen, stale food, not to mention a conversation about things two years ago she hadn't seen.

After a few minutes, my old friend asked if I were still playing basketball regularly. He had been on the court with us when Jim Miller had died. I had to say, no, although I was trying to teach my kids to play. He said it was understandable. He'd liked the games, though. Then he really surprised me.

"I think about you a lot, man," he said.

"Really?" I leaned back, eyebrows up. This was a guy I'd liked. But we had only spoken on the court and in the locker room. He hadn't played with us for much more than a year. (Well, he had played for plenty of days per week but most of it was during the last year of the lunch games.)

"The sessions kind of fell apart after you left," he said. He stepped back and straightened his blue, collared shirt.

"Not enough critical mass, I guess."

"Not enough something." He shrugged. "Anyway, I had to get serious about my classes. But I always felt like you had taught me something. You really believed in me."

"Well, yeah." He had been a blonde, fairly tall, physically deft player but he had been awfully timid. With encouragement, he'd become one of the featured big men. He had shown us that he was quick, mentally. He could anticipate a rebound. He could lead another player with a pass. "Of course."

"I hadn't run into that before. And you were fearless."

I laughed. He was talking about a game, after all.

"You were the shortest guy on the floor," he insisted. That part was true enough. "And you'd go into the center fearlessly. And you'd get stuffed. Whacked. Fouled, sometimes, right in your face. And you'd grab the ball. You'd wrestle it back. You'd fight the big guys and most of the time, you'd win. And you'd shoot it again."

"Yeah, sometimes, I guess."

"I'm tall. But, you know, I'd always been afraid to look bad. You weren't afraid to look bad."

Definitely a back-handed compliment. That was more like it. I laughed again. "Thanks."

"You know what I mean." He stopped and put his hands on his hips.

And I did know. I understood.

"I wasn't getting any better because I was afraid to look bad." He touched my shoulder again. "But you have to go in there, don't you? That was my lesson. You have to mix it up with the others. You have to get rejected. That was good for me to see, man."


We stood and smiled at each other for a few seconds. It was apparent this had been on his mind. And he'd said what he needed to say.

"Well," he murmured in a resigned voice, "I guess I'd better find my girlfriend again."

"Good for you."

"Yeah. Where did your wife go?"

I waved in the direction of the cereal aisle. We parted, smiling and waving. I weaved through the aisles a little, mostly for fun and to find my favorite peanut butter, but I knew where I would find my family. When I did sneak up on their cart, my wife gave me a smile and handed me our daughter. Our girl launched herself at me, really, and I caught her.

"Who was that guy?" my wife asked. She pushed the cart towards the line at the cashier.

"Oh, he wanted to talk basketball."

She paused for a moment. Her expression grew concerned. She had always liked seeing me play basketball and thought I was good at it. All the trick shots I'd done had deceived her. I'd trained myself up to my best level for a little while, yes, but it was a level of solid mediocrity. That seemed pretty reasonable to me as an accomplishment. I knew it would take more training to maintain that level. I had to make choices about my time. And we had kids.

"I thought you were done with basketball," she said carefully. Even though she was a fan of me playing sports, I knew she couldn't love the idea of me devoting eight hours a week to it like I had before.

"And I am." I nodded as we took our place in line. I bounced our daughter on my hip. "I'm done."