Nitrous oxide, synesthesia & time distortion.

When I was a kid – maybe 10 or 12 – I wrote the first sentence of a novel in a green, college-ruled note-book: “We are descended from witches and weres and vampires.”

I imagined the line – and its ensuing conversation – taking place in a homey, kitchen, redolent with the smell of melted paraffin, hot sugar, and chokecherry juice. I imagined the speaker was a pink-cheeked, soft-skinned, elderly woman with a sweat-damp Scandinavian braid wrapped around her head, and that she was speaking to her sturdy, plain-faced, middle-aged daughter, who was concerned about an uncharacteristic and terrible act committed by her own wild, wayward grandchild.

I still have that notebook (even though I’ve otherwise conquered my heritage of hoardishness.) And I’m still writing that novel.

Well, kinda. Not one of my manuscripts contain that specific line, but all of them are meditations on that basic concept – the idea that normal life (that which is familiar) is a matter of situation, circumstance and perception. Embedded in that line – at least for me – is the realization that life itself is magical and mysterious and that we spend far too much time – as individuals, as families, as communities, as a society – pretending that it isn’t. My writing has always been about asserting that “normal” life is an unhealthy, cult-ish state of being, and that pursuing the norm – or more accurately, denying the magical – is like drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.

You’d think, then, that I’d be able to bring that conviction into the real world, but I am as vulnerable as everyone else to getting sucked in to mundane. Lately life has thrown a lot of its most distracting normal-world challenges at me: financial stress, work-schedule conflicts, eldercare needs, and parenting decisions that will affect THE REST OF MY SON’S LIFE. The weather hasn’t been helping. I can’t remember when Minnesota has had a longer, colder, wetter, drearier winter and spring. Consequently, I’ve been too tired (wound up, stressed out, bone-chilled, etc.) to taste the contents of the cup I’ve been drinking from.

Who’d-a-thunk that an emergency visit to the dentist would be my antidote?

First you must know that I have a full-blown dental phobia. I don’t know (remember) why. It’s not like there have been a ton of opportunities for this phobia to take root and grow. I’ve been mostly lucky. In an effort to avoid ever visiting the dentist, I am religious about dental hygiene, and have developed a high pain tolerance. But one can only do so much. When my entire face recently swelled up and I could no longer eat, I made an appointment.

The first visit was quick. An x-ray revealed that my eyetooth was the problem and would require a root canal. I left the dentist’s office with a prescription for antibiotics to bring the swelling down, and a future appointment on the books.

Something else you should know is that I weep when I go to the dentist. I don’t mean that I sob, or thrash about, or make a scene – I just … leak tears. I can have a full and lucid conversation about the required treatment, and I can quietly submit to whatever needs to be done, but I cannot stop leaking. This is disconcerting to dentists. In fact, this makes them very solicitous. When I tell  a dentist that I will require nitrous oxide no matter what the cost, they are eager to give me as much as I want. And they are confident that I will want A LOT.

When the day came to perform the root canal, my new dentist was ready with plenty of laughing gas. As I settled in under the mask it occurred to me to ask if one could overdose on nitrous oxide. He laughed and said no. I relaxed as much as I could, closed my eyes, and started to do the same kind of deep breathing that helped me get through two drug-free births and every crisis I’ve had in the past 27 years.

I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t feel much pain when he injected me with the first of several shots of Novocaine. I remember him telling me that after he finished the series of shots, he would wait for a while before starting the root canal, so that the numbing agent could take full effect. Then I drifted.

I have a recurring dream in which I first run, then bound through a meadow. In the beginning, it’s a lovely dream but then I realize that it’s like I have springs in my feet, and that each time I return to the ground, my rebound is more powerful – and I can’t stop going higher and higher. It becomes dizzying, then terrifying, as I plunge from the sky toward the ground.

(Yes, I know that I have control issues.)

While breathing my nitrous, I was reminded of that dream and I tensed up … repeatedly. Knowing that I didn’t want to actually feel what the dentist was doing, and confident that he was a professional who would eventually and appropriately stop the flow of the blessed gas, I resisted the urge to struggle back to a more conscious state. I became aware of a sound, like that of music being played on crystal glasses. I concentrated on that sound for a while, until I realized it was probably the noise of the drill as the dentist worked, then I tried to ignore it. Even so, I was aware when the pitch of the sound climbed higher, then higher again. Each time the pitch shifted I felt my breathing speed up and become more shallow. It was too much. I pushed hard toward the surface of my mind.

When I opened my eyes, both the dentist and his assistant were bent over me, their masked faces inches above mine. The assistant was repeating my name and saying, “it’s okay, you’re fine.”

The dentist was wiping tears from the corner of my eye with a gloved finger. He said, “There you are!” I could see relief in his eyes as he straightened up.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I took in the situation, then asked, “I hyperventilated, didn’t I?”

“Yes. Yes you did.”

“How far are we?” I asked. “How much is done?”

The two of them exchanged looks. There was a pause. Then the dentist finally said, “Nothing. We’ve done nothing except give you the Novocaine.”

“But I heard the drill …”

“No. There was no drill.”

We determined together that I probably didn’t need quite so much nitrous oxide. I decided to keep my eyes open for the remainder of the procedure, so that I wouldn’t sink so far into my own mind. Before I gave myself over to the gas, I heard the dentist reassuring his assistant that such bad reactions were rare, but normal.

Once the gas was restarted, I realized that I could breath deeply until I felt my fingers tingling, but then I needed to take a break. Eventually I figured out how to take in just enough gas (how to hypnotize myself just enough) to stay somehow above what was going on in my mouth. I maintained a nice semi-conscious state, but I had no idea how much time was passing until my cell phone’s alarm chimed. (I have  reminder alarms set for various tasks through my day.) When the alarm sounded, I was relieved to know that I’d been at the office for more than an hour – at least this time, I thought, they are making progress.

We got through it.

Except we didn’t, really. Toward the end of the procedure, I realized they were taking an awful lot of x-rays. Though they reassured me there was nothing wrong, I knew something wasn’t right.

It turns out that the root of my eyetooth was too deep for the dentist’s tools to reach. Apparently my “fang” is half-again as long as an average eyetooth, and no tool in the dentist’s arsenal could get to the bottom of it.  (We are descended from witches and weres and vampires.) He ended up putting in a temporary filling and referring me to an endodontist – a specialist in root canals.

So it all happened again a week later. In that visit, I knew how to self-regulate my nitrous so I didn’t hyperventilate (nor terrify a young dental assistant), and  my mind converted the pain I felt into an overpowering taste  of copper pennies dissolving in my mouth – rather than the sound of crystal glasses singing.

Now that my fang is fine, I’m grateful for the experience. I needed to have my consciousness altered a little. Going to the dentist broke the spell “normal life” had on me.  Since then, I’ve finished the Lizzy novel. (I’m editing and revising now.) Pretty soon I will be seeking first-readers/critics, then picking up on the hotel novel that I started for NaNoWriMo.

Apparently, I needed to be reminded that the mind can translate its experiences into something strange and interesting, yet still reflective of reality. I also needed to be reminded that time is subjective. The first two-thirds of Lizzy’s novel was written over more than a decade, but was finished in a matter of weeks. The hotel novel took shape in 30 days.

I’m curious to see what happens next.

dental xray (2)



June WriMoProg 0 + 5 = 5/98

[X + Y = Z / total-hours goal, where X = writing/editing time, Y= other writerly tasks.]


Odd otters, weird woodchucks and one mad muskrat: why are the rodent-like critters in revolt?

A few weeks ago, a rare summertime aurora alert arrived in my inbox.  According to the email from, an especially strong CME was about to trigger a vivid display of the northern lights in the skies over Minnesota.

At about 2:30 on the morning of July 16th, my son and I hopped in the truck and headed north, seeking an unobstructed view of the horizon. Such a vista proved difficult to find, but eventually we found a promising gravel road. We bumped along that road for a few miles, until we found a lengthy stretch of darkness between the rural security lights which are the bane of skywatchers. We parked along the edge of a boggy meadow with a decent view, killed the lights and stepped out into the warm night. Though the sky was clear, and there was a certain glow that might have been a weak manifestation of the lights, we decided that we were out of luck.

(In other parts of Minnesota, however, the display was amazing. Check out these shots of the event, from a talented photographer in St. Cloud – a location approximately an hour and a half northeast of where we were.)

Despite our disappointment, we lingered. The pre-dawn morning was lovely, with a thick, low layer of fog swirling over the meadow and lapping at the roadway. Inevitably, of course, I started to imagine zombies shambling in the mist, and we decided to go. As I turned the truck into a nearby driveway, a motion in my sideview mirror caught my eye. Illuminated in the glow of my tail lights, a small, furry beast was following us.

It disappeared from my view when it marched directly underneath the truck. I stomped on the brakes and told my son what I had seen. He said, “Well, huh.” We looked at each other for a moment. Then we both leaned out our windows, trying to figure out how to not run over the damn thing. After long moments, it waddled out from behind the front, passenger-side wheel.

My son reported on the creature’s ever-changing relative location as I cautiously backed up. It seemed intent on circling us. We both assumed it was simply trying to return to the boggy meadow, but retreat was not on its mind. By the time I had squared myself in the right direction, it had taken a stand in the middle of the road, blocking our exit. Now the headlights clearly revealed the critter’s species:

Muskrat by Brian Gratwicke

As muskrats go, it wasn’t a particularly big specimen. Despite its harmless appearance, however, its behavior -along with the steadily thickening fog that was closing in around the truck – thoroughly unnerved me. My response in such situations is often laughter, and this one had me in a near-hysterical giggle-fit.

For a few seconds we each held our positions, then the muskrat charged straight toward the truck. I hit the accelerator and swerved around and past it, thankful that the road was wide and the shoulder firm. As I drove away, I looked in the rearview mirror. That mad muskrat was chasing our truck – as fast as its furry little legs would carry it.

It was a strange encounter, but not as strange as some others which have been in the news lately. Even before we went on our aurora quest, we saw a story on the national news that amazed and amused us:

Dead Flag by Tim Parkinson

Click on the above photograph, or go here to view a CBS news story about some grave robbing rodents in New York.

Subsequent to our muskrat encounter, rodenty happenings in Minnesota took a darker turn. (Yes, I know that otters are NOT rodents. In fact, they are considered to be members of the weasel family. That’s why the title of this post includes the word ‘rodent-like’.)

The Kiss by Sharon Mollerus

Doesn’t this pair look sweet? I’ve certainly always thought of otters as gentle, playful creatures. I’ve never seen one in the wild, but if I had, I would have been delighted. In light of recent developments, however, I think I will be cautious if I ever get the chance to observe one up close.

Click on the otter picture above, or go here to read about two different attacks by otters in Minnesota waters.

What does this mean for the human race? Probably nothing. All things considered, though, I’ll be keeping an eye out for unusual behavior in any animal I meet in the coming days.


All photos subject to Creative Commons.

WriMoProg: 0 + 9 = 9/46

Web Wanderings: The blue-skinned people of Troublesome Creek.

In Troublesome Creek, Kentucky – thanks to a rare, recessive gene – some descendants of Martin Fugate and Elizabeth Smith have been born – and have lived their whole lives – with blue skin.

I have no direct knowledge of this phenomena. I’ve never been to Troublesome Creek. (But, oh, how I adore that name.) I cannot find any public domain photographs of the condition. Still, I am fascinated.

While web wandering, I searched through dozens of sites to find the most reputable sources of information to share:

The ABC News website captions this image as a hand-colored black and white photo of Martin Fugate and his family. The source is shown as unknown.

In case you don’t have the time or inclination to read through those websites, allow me to relate the highlights.

It seems that Martin Fugate emigrated to Kentucky’s Troublesome Creek in approximately 1820. (From Virginia? France? Sources differ on this and other details.) Family lore says that his skin was blue, which seems to be confirmed by the above image, (but remember it is hand-tinted.) He married a local woman with fair skin, who nevertheless seems to have carried the same recessive trait he did. They had seven children, four of whom were born blue. These seven children married into the few local families in the area and founded a distinct bloodline.

That bloodline is complicated. I’ve been pouring over the available data, and I can’t quite trace my way through the tangled genealogical pedigree (provided by a descendant of the Fugates) which is viewable at the Indiana University website listed above, not even with the help of this reference: Pedigree Analysis.

The complication stems mostly from the fact that one of Martin and Elizabeth’s children, Zachariah (who was blue) married his mother’s sister. This marriage resulted in a generation of indeterminate number, which included Levi. (Or Levy.) Levi married and produced eight children, including a girl named Luna.

Luna was, perhaps, the bluest of all the Fugates. She gave birth to thirteen children, none of whom were blue. In 1975, however, her great-grandson was born deep blue, in a hospital not far from where Martin and Elizabeth first settled. As he aged, he lost the blue coloration and is thought to be just a carrier.

For more information about the condition itself, you’ll have to wade through the websites I provided, because I’ve developed a massive headache from tracing lines on that chart. (Two bits of pertinent information: 1: the condition is treatable, and medication can eliminate the blue coloration if it is taken daily 2: there doesn’t seem to be any adverse side effects to the condition – most of those who exhibited the color lived long, healthy lives.)

Before I go, I want to offer my personal thoughts about this. Many of the websites to which I didn’t link took an avid, breathless sort of tone which emphasized the fact that this condition came about because of inbreeding. I was offended. It isn’t hard for me to understand how geographical and socioeconomic factors contributed to the spread of this gene.

As a story-teller, I have to wonder if Martin journeyed to Troublesome Creek because there was a family there that would not treat him as an outcast because of the color of his skin. (Even if neither Elizabeth nor Mary were blue themselves, they both must have carried the gene – which suggests to me that somewhere in their family history, there were blue people.) Is it possible that he embarked on a quest to find people who would accept him as he was? And what of Zachariah, who married his aunt? Was he, perhaps, the eldest of Elizabeth’s children, and was Mary, perhaps, a straggler baby in Elizabeth’s birth family? How many children of the appropriate age existed in the community? And how many of those potential mates would accept a blue spouse?

In the end, I guess, there’s no way of knowing why events unfolded as they did. Without knowing, I think it best to reserve moral judgements.

Besides, isn’t it sort of wonderful that there have been – and may still be – blue people in the world?