When I was a little boy, say from age six to maybe nine or ten, in my lively little old home town—which has for at least a hundred years been notoriously known for its relish of the indulgence in every intoxicating and mind altering chemical and natural substance—I had a little old dentist. He was short, had gray hair and glasses, and maybe a smallish mustache. And for some reason either he, or my mother [and she denies it] insisted that I call him “Uncle Elmer.”
His first name was, in truth, Elmer but buddy, he was no uncle of mine by either blood or affection! Now I hereby and freely admit that I have not researched whether pain management techniques of dentistry on small children were advanced beyond having “Just try to hold on, it’ll be over soon” spoken over me by an adult I was supposed to be able to trust in those, my tender years. So I squeezed all the blood out of my dear mother’s hand, weeping and howling over that horrifying, highly pitched screaming whine of the drill. Tensing my hand and arm muscles, and tears seemed the only things that helped the icepick-to-the-jaw pain—if even just a tiny bit—inflicted by a dental drill greedily seeking another dental nerve to devour. Yes, this happened whenever Uncle Elmer found a “bug”—his twisted euphemism for a cavity—in one of my teeth (and I had a lot of them . . . cavities, that is, not teeth). I am uncertain whether U.E. was speaking these words of supposed comfort (“Just try to hold on . . .”) to me, or if it was my mother, or an angel of mercy from Heaven above, but I do remember that in the end, I’m pretty sure they didn’t help at all.
I hated dentists. To clarify, I harbored no hatred for Uncle Elmer himself, but I was pretty sure that dentists as a whole were a pretty sorry lot if they would willingly make a kid hurt like that.
My First View of the Ocean: The Problem of Physical Pain
And then, some fifteen years or so later, after I had graduated college, moved east by slightly northeast to the big city, then south to the really big city (all to pursue my so-called career) it happened. I packed up and moved again—this time to a mid-sized city on The River in order to finally conquer this confounded “career” thing. Instead, I got a really bad toothache. And so, I got a new dentist. I had no idea how new he would turn out to be.
A Solution and its Welcomed Side Effect: Elation
On visit number one, before beginning her work New Dentist’s dental hygienist matter-of-factly asked me, “Do you take gas?” I was confused. As far as I knew, I had only taken gas from the shed behind my old home place in an approved container out to wherever our Cub Cadet lawn tractor had run out of gas on our sprawling front lawn or back pasture. I wonder what she thought as I stared up into her lovely face with that, “Um, excuse me?” look.
[Speaking of faces, I hope to never, as long as I live, forget her beautiful face—true minister of mercy that she turned out to be.]
She smiled kindly, didn’t laugh at me or mock me, and gently ushered me into the magical, mystical world of Nitrous Oxide. And this leads me back to this week (fast forwarding a large bunch more years).
Recently diagnosed (I am pretty humiliated to say) with the “very beginnings” of periodontal disease, I was told that this would require a couple of procedures which—from Really Truly New Dentist’s description—could be very painful during my time reclined in the chair. But I was assured that such suffering would not happen due to the following: a “pre-op” combination of gas and a gentle massage of my gums with topical numbing gel, followed all the while with more gas and injections to render whole sides of my mouth completely and utterly without feeling before the serious scraping below the gum line began. The serious scraping was to be accompanied, without interruption, by as much gas as I wanted. Ahh, Nitrous Oxide: “happy gas” this office staff calls it.
Transcendence and Frustration Dwell Together
I think that these periods of my Nitrous journey are best illustrated by an attempted impromptu journal clumsily thumb “typed” during periodontal-disease-treatment-visit-one. In an attempt to capture the essence of the ways in which this wonderful substance has helped(?) and might further facilitate the creative thinking of this writer, I thumb-tapped the following points.
NOTE: I captured these thoughts after the hygienist’s assistant had started the gas, massaged my gums with numbing gel, and then left the room for awhile to allow the potion to produce its full effect. Here are my “Ideas for Future Blog Post” input as the gas was flowing and really beginning to take hold.
- Describe the frustration of having one’s phone in one’s pocket in the dentist’s office while under nitrous oxide for a dental procedure.
- Estimate the inverse relationship of fast-incoming incredible ideas while under the influence of nitrous oxide, to the ability to act on those ideas because your phone is in your stupid pocket, and
- (nitrous really taking hold now . . . hard . . . to . . . type)
[NOTE: At this point, a couple of people came into the room so I deftly slipped my phone back into the pocket. And then, suddenly, everybody left again and so, like lightning, I jerked the phone back out and set my thumbs to fast work.]
- A reprieve . . . they’re still not back . . . I can still work . . .
- Describe that period while fully “under” (i.e., “the influence of”) the gas and they’re all in the room and all up in your mouth doing stuff, and your phpne [sic] really is in your pocket to stay for the duration of the “flight”
Post Procedure Realities
The previous five bullet points are my actual transcript; in-process thoughts as I was trying to describe how great Nitrous Oxide is for writers and other creative types. They, I believe, fairly closely represent the Frustration phase of my own Nitrous trips along the path. At various points, I have had—what I thought in the moment—were pretty brilliant ideas for a piece [of writing] or a “peace” (see below) as I approached, but didn’t quite achieve the Transcendence that seemed so close that I could own it (or at least rent it until they closed the magic valve on the magic tank).
The following is what I could remember just after the gas had been turned off and I began to exit the ride.
- While under the influence, there were wood nymphs dancing in my mouth putting something in my mouth, and there was some beautiful music playing in the sky. Dang it! Can’t get to my phone! (i’m [sic] pretty sure I could have solved that whole Middle East peace thing if I could’ve just gotten to my phone!)
The Cold, Hard Truth
As much as I, one of us creative types, want to believe that I can write better when I’m “doing,”—in this case, Happy Gas—experience has proven that it just ain’t so. And, if history be my tutor, I am not alone in this conclusion. The high is fleeting, inconsistent, incapable of being reliably and productively re-created and harnessed for high quality, artistic output, and is fraught with frustration, mood swings, and errors technical, moral, and otherwise that have to be fixed sooner or later by the artist or—probably far more often—some poor sound engineer, agent, handler, fellow musician, co-writer, or editor.
And . . .
- if all of these human backups are willing and “successful” in the sad job of enabling the artist to limp along, falling ever shy of his or her true un-enhanced “genius” (if indeed there really is or was any there to begin with), and—to really complicate matters . . .
- if the poor slob happens to have a family and continues to insist that he or she is so much better when doing . . .
- that isn’t funny at all; not a comedy, but a tragic mess.
Lessons From My Not-So-Funny-for-a-Little-Kid and Selectively-Sad-for-Some-of-Us-“Grownups” Tale
First of all, Uncle Elmer wasn’t evil. I suspect that this little old man, though kindly and well-intentioned, had put off changing with the times and learning/practicing/investing in new techniques, in favor of the comfortable (for him); for what he already knew. This “path of least resistance” of just doing what we already know and are comfortable with really is a slippery slope. In my case, once I have dropped behind and fallen, it is indeed hard to get up, re-tool, get with the times, and do my art more satisfyingly to myself, and more pleasingly to my readers.
Finally, my stuff (my art) is better when I have lived life cleanly, honestly, kindly, humbly and in ways that give maximum honor to the God who has gifted me. And my art is best of all when, having lived so, I say “No” to my personal craving for escape from reality and an intense “feel good” sensation to go with it. In other words, I perform best when I still have all my wits about me. Otherwise, I am at very high risk of being just another nitwit creative type, posing and laughing my way past the best I could have done, and diving headlong into the deep end of the Ocean of Average.