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.