Sunday, June 19, 2016

Quothe the Raven, "evermore"


Author's Note: This was originally published in 2009, then pulled when I got nervous during a job search. I restored it today after getting over myself. Raven died in 2010 of kidney failure at the age of nineteen. I still miss my little hell kitty.

I have a cat on my desk.

This is a good thing.

Last month, when I painted my bedroom and installed my 'closet organizing system', I also moved my desk and set it up so that my cat, Raven, could curl up beside my laptop. This has worked out much better than I ever thought it would. For one, it gives her a place to be close to me that doesn't include the keyboard of my laptop. So, instead of yowling at me, jumping up to my lap, hanging out for five minutes, yowling at me again, and hopping down, only to yowl at me to be let up in another two minutes, she actually hangs out in a mellow kitty mood. It's very nice.

Raven is almost 18 years old, a very respectable kitty age, especially considering how many of her lives she's gone through.

She selected me as her human in January of 1992, my junior year of college. It was a cool, wet day, but warm enough for my roomies and me to open windows and doors and do a little spring cleaning. My roommates, Tracy and Marie, had each acquired a kitten when we got the apartment. I was under orders from my parents, forbidden to even think of getting a hamster, let alone a cat.

As I scrubbed the kitchen table clean, a small cat walked into our townhouse, jumped up on the stool next to the table and announced herself. I introduced myself in turn, having learned proper cat etiquette from my roomies, and the little kitty hung out while I cleaned. I think I found a can of tuna for her, as I was glad of the company.

At first glance, she looked like a black cat. I came to learn later that she was, in reality, a very dark tortoiseshell. In bright sunlight, her head and legs are pure black, but her body has swirls of dark brown and little brushes of cream. Anyone who has every kept company with a tortoiseshell cat can attest that they come with their own unique attitude, better known as tortietude.

Well, the kitty was talkative and friendly, even letting me pick her up. She had no collar, and it seemed to me that Fate had arranged for her to stop by and become a member of the household. My member of the household. My cat. A fait d'accompli, if you will. Now, she might have had a different human, so to be on the safe side, I tied a note to her neck, explaining my intentions to adopt her, and out she wandered.

Two neighbors came over later in the day to explain that she'd stopped by their place earlier, and they were very glad she'd found a permanent home. She came back on her own that evening.

Well, first things first, kitty - now named Raven for her glossy black fur - needed a vet visit to be vaccinated and possibly wormed. See, the roomies' cats, Ember and Onyx, had both had worms, so it was on my mind, especially since Raven had a rather pronounced tummy. Parents? Forbidden a hamster, let alone a cat? Well, I was taking the "easier to ask forgiveness than permission" tack and spending my own money on her. So, the parents would most likely get over it.

At the vet's, I specifically mentioned that I thought Raven might have worms. The vet frowned thoughtfully, palpated her abdomen, ducked her claws, and said, "no, she doesn't have worms. She is pregnant."

Now, I was nervous enough about denying the parents' will, and this just about sent me over the edge.

"They're gonna kill me," I said over and over again. "They're gonna kill me."

"Robin," Marie snapped, "the cat's pregnant, not you."

Didn't matter. They were going to kill me.

They didn't, but that's another story.

Fanfic Apologia - Part 1

Author's Note: This was originally posted at the Twisting the Hellmouth site. Unfortunately, the essay option has not done anything for them. Almost no one ever uses it. So, in an effort to make the site a little more streamlined, the Powers That Be decided to remove all essays. They very kindly suggested I move my two essays over to my blog.

Here's the first one:

Fanfiction Apologia



Let's say you're hanging out with a new person, having that 'get to know one another' conversation, and you're asked, "so, any hobbies?"

Did you just hunch your shoulders in a defensive posture? Did you take a deep breath and give an apologetic smile before offering your answer?

"I write fanfic" generally gets one of two responses. The first is from someone who hasn't run into it before. Perhaps they don't have an Internet connection. Perhaps they've only ever watched five minutes of Firefly and never pursued it past that. Maybe they think Star Wars is fun movie for kids, but nothing for grown ups to get excited over.

"Okay….what's fanfic?"

And you get to be the first person to explain the concept to them. More on that in another essay.

The second response is a bit more discouraging. Whether it's a repressed snicker, a smirk that indicates 10,000 points are about to be taken from Gryffindor for you being an utter geek, or a cringe followed by the muttered "oh, one of them," it can be difficult to rally a defense.

You should.

After all, unless your partner in conversation is a published author who sprang fully formed from the brow of their MS Word program, you are ahead in creativity, resourcefulness, and diligence.

Now, let's not kid ourselves. If Sturgeon's Law dictates that 90% of everything is crap, it can surely be applied to fanfiction. Twice. Make it kind of a Sturgeon's Law Squared. There is a lot of bad, bad fanfic out there. There is fanfic so bad, it gives off the squiggly stench fumes usually reserved for Snuffy Smith comicstrips. There is fanfic so very bad, it makes the Baby Jesus cry.

But there's good stuff out there too. There's some stuff so good, you wish you could grab the original creators by the collar, shove it in their face and say "Bad creator! Read this! This is what Season 6 should have been!" There is some fanfic out there so very good, you chew your nails down to little nubs as you read. There is some fanfic out there that is so very good, you find yourself hoping – even praying – that the author gets published, because you know that you'll put down the $8 for a paperback and even spring the $25 for a hardback if it has their name on it.

Fanfiction, whatever else it is, is an opportunity for great writing to shine through, and there are some great writers whose primary form is fanfiction. Here's why:

Poetry is partly defined by what form it takes. Form refers to what type of poetry it is. Is it a limerick? A haiku? Free verse? How many lines? What rhythm is used? What type of rhyme? Sonnets are known for their hellish restrictions in form. Sixteen lines of iambic pentameter with two possible rhyme schemes make the writing a poem in that form a kind of torture.

Yet, Shakespeare wrote over 150 of them.

Cinquains are even more strict. And ghazals? Don't even get me started on ghazals. The whole 'hiding my name in the last line' makes my head hurt. Yet, for all the immense difficulty of each form, there is no shortage of beauty, eloquence, or profundity. Because, as strange as it may sound, the more restrictions we put on a form, the more we guide our own creativity.

Or, as Robert Frost once said, "writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down."

Everyone needs a set of rules to begin with, and the stricter the rules are, the farther they can take you. The stricter the rules are, the more of a challenge the writing becomes. Writers thrive on honest challenge.

And now you're looking at me, one eyebrow raised, about to clobber me for talking about poetry when I'm supposed to be explaining fanfiction. That's okay. Just hang in there a bit longer, and it will be made clear.

Poetry lends itself to an easy parallel, but I'll come back to prose. Fiction, to be specific, and "fan fiction" to point at the singular minutia. If poetry has elements, then so does fiction. They are:

- Setting
- Character
- Plot
- Theme
- Tone
- Point of View

The details on each of these are yet another essay or a series of them. For now, I'm going to concentrate on Setting, Character, and Theme.

Authors working in a completely original story have the luxury of picking and choosing each of their elements, though genre often determines some of the elements before the writer does. Science Fiction writers work primarily in a future setting, though the plot may be something recycled since Euripedes. Romance novelists have one basic theme – true love conquers all. Regency romance novelists take on the extra challenge of writing in the specific setting of Regency England and the social milieu of the ton. The more specific restrictions that are chosen, the more challenged the writers is, and the greater their writing can become.

The whole point of fan fiction is to explore an already created, commonly known universe. It has existed as long as story has –or did you think all those little extra add-ons to Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, and African mythology just happened? Since the advent of writing, and especially of the printing press, stories have frozen, never to be changed again. Previously, they were living things, and each teller could bend the story in a new direction, adding or subtracting as they felt worked best.

An author of fan fiction begins with a known and defined setting – time, place, and social milieu. Sunnydale is a town on the coast of California between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It has a corrupt police department, a university, a high school, a port, and any number of other geographical elements that lend themselves to plot complications. The time is present day, though that is usually only important in addressing culture and technology. The social milieu is middle class, with occasional forays into the wrong side of the tracks.

They have a specific cast of characters to direct. Buffy Summers, Rupert Giles, Willow Rosenberg, Xander Harris. All of these characters have seven years' writing behind them. They are well established, three dimensional, and dynamic. A writer who understands these characters will be able to put them in a situation and predict reactions consistent with their history, temperament, and experience.

The theme, save for some who prefer radical experimentation, remains the same (yes, high school, then college, and finally life in general, is still Hell on Earth. Why do you ask?). The bonds of friendship are what make this world worth saving and living in. Experience is often a bitter master, but it teaches better than almost anything else out there. Every character in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is bound by these things. Every episode harkens back to these ideas.

So, the challenges to writing a fanfic are far greater than any casual fiction writer will encounter, and if a fanfic writer lives up to them, the potential for great writing is just as great.

Crossover fanfictions are even more of a challenge, as the strictures for setting, character, and theme are more confining. Crossing time, place, and social milieu means you can't take the characters' reactions for granted. Crossing themes means the match of characters may even come off as ludicrious.

If there is a parallel to this challenge, then look at the writers who join the staff of any popular television series. The change in writers is supposed to be seamless (unless, of course, you're getting rid of bad writers in an effort to improve the series), and the writers must be invisible.

Even then, a good writer, fanfic or otherwise, will leave their mark on a story – a new and fascinating interpretation of a character, a question of consequence that hasn't been addressed before, a shift of theme, a break in tone, and a never seen point of view – that brings the readers back to the story and leaves them satisfied. Before the writer can accomplish that, they must master the elements of the universe so that what they present is believable, plausible, and accepted.

That is a challenge no regular fiction writer has to face.

So, here is my challenge to you:

Consider the universe you wish to explore. Before changing Sunnydale to the Caribbean inhabited by Davy Jones, master Sunnydale and its environs. Before writing Buffy and Angel meet Captain Jack Sparrow, make sure you can write them believably in Sunnydale.

Even in the process of working these challenges, you should face the dismay or supercilious reactions of your acquaintances with justifiable pride. After all, it's not every person out there brave enough to attempt the work. Say it loud. Say it proud. You write fanfic!

I want ninjas on my detergent box, not a baby!

Author's Note: this bit was originally published in 2011, pulled when I got nervous during a job search, and has now been restored after I reread my entries and decided to get over myself. My father passed away March 16, 2016 of Alzheimer's, but that's another 1000 blog entries in and of itself.

My father has a rash. He's had it for months, and it's excruciating. Thanks to medical science, it doesn't look nearly as bad as it used to, but it still itches like crazy. If he doesn't wear gloves when he sleeps, he scratches himself bloody. So, we're looking for any solution that might help.

The latest thing is finding the least allergenic, most gentle laundry detergent out there. So far, he's been using one of those no-fragrance, no-color detergents. I love how they charge us more not to put stuff in. Isn't capitalism wonderful? So, I asked around, and a particular brand, Dreft, was recommended to me. It's used for babies, because babies have very tender skin and need the leastest allergenic, mostest gentlest laundry detergent in the entire world.

So, I picked up a box for my dad. Expensive stuff at $14. Damn. Better be good. But here's the other problem: my dad does not want to use a product made for babies. He can barely stand to acknowledge that he's officially old. Any suggestion that smacks of treating him as an old man gets shot down, post haste. Treating him like a baby would be even worse.

This is why I want ninjas. Not in person, but on the box. I want a box of the leastest allergenic, mostest gentlest laundry detergent with skulls and crossbones, ninjas, pirates, killer special ops, lumberjacks, and other manly man attributes. I want my dad to look at this box and think, "Finally! A laundry detergent that treats me as the rough and tumble man I am!", and inside is the leastest allergenic, mostest gentlest detergent ever.

Maybe I could paint the box.

Laundry, thy name is Entropy!

Author's Note: This was originally published in 2011, pulled when I got nervous during a job search, and has now been put out there again when I went through my stuff and decided to get over myself. Nothing, however, regarding the entropic nature of laundry has changed in that time.

The second law of thermodynamics is stated thusly: "In a closed system, entropy will always increase."

That is to say, every moment of the universe's existence, it becomes more disorganized. Entropy is the measure of how things fall apart. Dust collects, stains form, colors fade. What was once organized matter - a new dress, a freshly painted iron railing, a main sequence G-type star - eventually becomes stained, ripped, rusty, crumbly, or even a white dwarf.

Laundry, to me, is the perfect example of this. Every couple of weeks, I have organized my laundry so that every item is appropriately hung up, ironed, folded, or stored. By the next time I change clothes, entropy has begun. Dirty clothes pile up. Fresh shirts are wrinkled. My favorite blouse has a brand new mocha stain on it. One leg of my good black pants has come unhemmed. I can't find half of the new panties I bought.

I made huge strides when I bought myself a "closet organizing system" by Rubbermaid. I even managed to install it myself. AND I was not injured in the process. I now have more than twice the hanging rod space as before, plus shelves, plus it looks a whole lot better. Yet even I know this cannot last.

There are currently more dirty towels than clean ones in my bathroom, and that's even considering just how generous I am with the label "clean". My comforter - and which insane person decided white was the perfect color for a comforter? - is now soaking in the washing machine, trying to get out the honey I spilled on it when I tried to take a spoonful for my coughing in the middle of the night. I applied stain remover. I added color-safe bleach, because even though it is white, the label said not to use chlorine bleach. I put it on the soak and agitate cycle.

Even so, more dirty laundry waits. The sheets are snagged by the cat's sharp claws. The world waits with things to drip on the front of my blouse.

Entropy always wins.

Tempest Tossed - Chapter Seven

Author's Note: Oopsie. I swear to the Powers That Be that I re-read the rules at the Twisting the Hellmouth fanfic site at least once a year, but the prohibition against Anne McCaffrey fanfic completely slipped my mind. So, wishing to respect the site's guidelines but not wanting to sacrifice the work I did, I have pulled that section and published it here. 

Ms. McCaffrey had some strict guidelines for writing Dragonriders of Pern(TM) fan fiction. I believe I have met all the criteria. Just so you know, all elements of the Dragonriders of Pern are the property of the estate of Anne McCaffrey, her son Todd McCaffrey, and the editors, publishers, and distributors of those books. I do not intend any copyright or trademark infringement, and I will not make any profit from this.

If you wish to read the story this is taken from or any of my other fanfic works, click here.




She sprinted across the rough turf as fast as she could, not daring to look back. In the last world, a kind of Wild West populated almost entirely by women, she'd at least had a chance to eat something, so she hadn't been as worried about her immediate environment. Which would have been funny if, five minutes after she arrived on a wide, empty plain, it hadn't gone completely still and silent except for the wind. She'd done a slow scan of the world around her and seen a smudge of silver on the horizon. That smudge was moving much, much too fast, like a storm boiling over a ridge, getting bigger and bigger until it covered almost all of the (probably) eastern half of the sky. Dotted in the silver were tiny gouts of flame that burst into being and disappeared just as quickly. 

It may have been instinct and instinct alone that made her start running, but Dawn listened to it, and the closer that line of silver threads falling like weighted streamers came, the faster she ran. Panicked, she poured as much as she could into her run. She needed cover, and there was nothing taller than her knee out there. Wherever the phouka was and however long it took him to catch up to her, that was all secondary to not letting those threads fall on her.

A shadow passed across her, much too fast and too close to be a cloud, much too large to be anything good. She heard the air whoosh and groan with beating wings as large as spinnaker sails. It circled once and a sudden wash of hot, sulfurous wind beat down on her. She turned, looking over her shoulder, and for a moment, her brain refused to process what she saw.

A bright sapphire blue larger than a school bus, wings that could have spanned five cars on either side, a graceful tail held under its body as a balance to the sudden braking of wings, a head bigger than her entire body, and a pair of sparkling, whirling, faceted eyes trained on her.

Dragon.

DRAGON.

She didn't even know when she tripped or started to fall, only that a peculiar black halo pulled in around her vision, and that she had stopped breathing at some point.

A set of talons, each longer than her arm, closed gently around her chest and picked her up. She was held where it could inspect her more closely. The smell of sulfur was very strong.

My name is Dalanth. I will not drop you.

The voice in her head was cheerful, curious, and determined.

"D-Dawn," she stammered.

Hello, Dawn. Hold on.

The wings beat again in fast rhythm, and each beat was accompanied by a sudden multi-G acceleration as Dalanth took to the air again. Dawn couldn't hold her head up against it and just clutched at the blue dragon's foot as it lifted her into the sky. After several long moments of climbing, Dalanth shifted and began to glide.

We are going between. Do not be afraid.

"Between?" Dawn shouted. "What's be-"

The world disappeared like a light switch turned off. Nothing. No sound. No light. No air. No sensation of anything against her skin. She tried to scream, and she couldn't feel anything that told her whether she'd managed or not.

"-AAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"

The sky, gravity, air, and the rest of the universe came roaring back. A ring of cliffs rose precipitously around them, and Dalanth angled his glide into a steep bank. Sky, air, and stone, rushed past her eyes, and her hair whipped around her face. After a moment of terror, she realized she was safe. The blue dragon had rescued her from whatever was falling from the sky. He wasn't about to drop her or crash into the side of a mountain after that. She managed to open her eyes and look around. 

It was unbelievable, utterly and impossibly thrilling. There was no sound other than Dalanth's enormous wings beating the air and the huff and chuff of his breathing. His front left claws were wrapped firmly around her from just under her shoulders to just above her knees. They flew into a dormant volcano. The floor of the great cauldron was patchy sand and grass, and -

The ground came towards them with sudden speed. Several rows of cave mouths whizzed past them, fast enough that she realized they had to be going at better than highway speeds. Just as abruptly, Dalanth pulled himself into a vertical figure and flapped his wings hard and fast, lifting a cloud of debris from the ground and sending a small herd of cattle into panicked flight.

Light as a ballerina stepping into a pirouette, Dalanth touched down on his hind legs, dropped to his front right leg, and furled his wings. Once he was settled, he brought his left front leg down, set Dawn carefully on her feet and gently released her. His great head angled down so he could see her clearly, and his eyes whirled in a tight focus on her.

"That was . . . that was . . ."

Something hit the ground with a thud, and a young man came around the side of the dragon, his hand on the dragon's neck. 

"Sorry for the dramatic landing," he apologized. "Dalanth was just showing off. Are you all right?"

Dawn looked over at him, still too winded and overwhelmed to manage a sentence. He was wearing a fur lined leather jacket and pants, a thick scarf, and goggles. That and his curly brown hair gave him the look of a World War I aviator. 

"Are you all right?" he asked again, raising his eyebrows.

She managed to nod, and then pointed a finger up.

"We were . . . we were flying."

He grinned and nodded. 

"Yes, we were," he agreed. "Never been on dragonback before? Well, in dragon claws, that is? They don't like carrying people like that because it usually scares the people so much. You must be from a small hold if you haven't been around a dragon before."

Dawn pointed her shaky finger at Dalanth.

"He's . . . he's a dragon," she said.

"Yeeeessss," the man agreed, looking a little concerned at how she was taking it.

"He's a nice dragon," she added.

"I certainly think so," he responded. "Dalanth's the biggest blue in Ista Weyr, from Ramoth's third clutch. We've been together for ten years now. Oh, my name's T’dor."

“Dawn,” she managed. “My name’s Dawn.”

“Oh,” he replied, nodding uncertainly. “Well, that’s an . . . interesting name.”

She sat down abruptly, and Dalanth made a querying trill that reverberated in deep bass.

“Shoes,” she explained, pulling her bag around and opening it. “I need to change my shoes.”

T’dor knelt beside her while she reached in and took out her running shoes and a fresh pair of socks.

“What were you doing out on the plains of Telgar?” he asked. “You were miles away from any of the holds, even the footpaths.”

“Just dumb luck,” Dawn replied, pulling her shoes off. She wouldn’t be wearing them again. “You haven’t seen a big black dog anywhere around, have you?”

Fresh socks on her feet felt blissfully good.

“Big, black . . . you mean a hound?” T’dor asked, mystified. 

“Yeah,” she agreed. “A hound.”

“No,” he told her. “No one keeps hounds on Ista Island. There’s nothing to hunt.”

“This wouldn’t be a hound anyone owns,” she said, tying her shoes.

“You’re in a dormant volcano,” he said. “There’s no way for a hound to get in here.”

She wouldn’t count on it. This was her third try. First it was the world with the werewolves, then it was an Industrial Age Amazonland where men apparently did exist but were so rare they were kept cloistered under armed guard. Now it was friendly, telepathic dragons, deadly rain, and some sort of teleportation. Plus, they spoke some distant derivative of English that she picked it up almost the same instant that Dalanth had spoken to her. 

No rest nor sleep the maiden know . . . 

She’d had less than ten minutes in wereworld world, and she’d been in Amazonland for nearly twenty before the phouka had caught up to her. She hadn’t been able to meditate and control her jump from world to world, and she could feel it taking its toll. Doctor McCoy had warned her that each jump destroyed anywhere from one to five percent of her red blood cells. Not a terribly big deal if she rested a few days between each jump, and the more she used Herr Shang’s guidance - not, for instance, forcing the universe she stepped into to rearrange itself so that she came in right side up - the lighter the toll was on her. 

But she’d been in a terrible rush the last three jumps, and she could feel fatigue dragging at her bones. She couldn’t go back, because that required that she finish whatever task awaited her in this world, and none of them had been right there. The problem - one of the problems - was that the further away she got, the less she could feel the direction home. She hadn’t even known that was possible. It scared her.

“Are you all right?” T’dor asked. “Why don’t I take you down to the kitchens. We’ll get some food in you, and then, after this Threadfall is over, Dalanth and I can take you home.”

“That would be nice,” she said, wishing it were possible. “Thank you, Dalanth.”

The blue dragon brought his head down again and snorted a gust of air, plastering her skirt to her legs. His eyes whirled and sparkled with blues and purples.

“He likes you,” T’dor said, and then slapped his mount affectionately on the neck. “Go on, you. Take a quick dip in the lake, but no eating. We’ll have to go right back out once I’ve delivered Dawn to Sanada.”

Goodbye, Dawn.

They passed several other dragons - green, blue, brown, bronze, and one exquisite gold dragon the size of a cargo plane - and people running one way and the other, all of them with purpose. It was like being in the middle of a military exercise. She watched one green dragon, laden with heavy canvas bags filled with some sort of rock, launch itself into the air, its rider holding on to the straps of his saddle, and just above the rim of the volcano, they winked out of sight. T’dor had to tug gently on her arm to get her to come along.

He led her to a wide tunnel opening lined with nets filled with luminous lumps of something. She didn’t ask. So far, he seemed to be under the impression that she was a pretty but not very bright girl from a rural village of some sort, and she was content to leave it that way. It was when they came to a turn in the tunnel that she paused. The lights had faded until they could only be seen by their yellowish glow and didn’t illuminate anything.

Something was growling.

“That’s odd,” T’dor said. “Those glows should have been replaced hours ago, and what is that sound?”

She could barely see his outline, and the growl was coming from just beyond him. In the darkness, she heard the phouka’s claws scrape on the stone floor. Dalanth roared from somewhere far beyond the tunnel just as a large, heavy shape knocked T’dor down and gathered itself to leap at her.

She turned, stepped into a run, reaching for the next nearest world, trying to keep the calm, quiet center Shang had taught her and feeling it slip through her fingers. The world she was in parted around her, and she slipped through, landing badly on her ankle, stumbling, almost falling, stumbling again, and finally catching herself and standing up.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Root Canals Are Not Hell

So, tooth #4 (that's upper right premolar/bicuspid to those of you in the know) has been on the Terrorist Watch List for several years. Had I gotten the stupid cavity filled when it was first spotted, it would have been a lot cheaper and less involved in the end. But it seems that whenever I have the mental focus and stamina to deal with the dentist, I lack the time and finances. If I have the time, I lack the focus and the finances. If I have the finances, I lack the time and the stamina. On any average day, I score 1 of 3 and count myself lucky to be doing so well.

But, at the last tooth cleaning and x-ray, the dentist pointed out that tooth #4 had gone over to the Dark Side. The cavity took up nearly 50% of the tooth, and if it wasn't already in contact with the nerve pulp, it would be any second now.

I've had one tooth with an infected nerve pulp. It was worse than any migraine I've ever had. Worse than the gall bladder attacks I suffered through. Worse than breaking my ankle or my elbow. It was so bad, all I could do was curl up around my jaw with an ice pack on the worst of it and pray for the sweet release of death. Instead, I got a dental appointment the following Monday, an immediate referral to an endodontist, and a root canal the following morning.

I like my endodontist. I'd like him even if he hadn't prescribed me Vicodin and then given me so much local anesthetic I wouldn't have noticed if he'd implanted antlers over my ears. Unfortunately, because of the stress of the infected tooth, the anxiety of Oh My Og, a ROOT CANAL, I don't actually remember much. Just him and his assistant being very sympathetic and patting me on the head, and a bit of explanation as to why root canals are not as bad as everyone thinks they are.

Bit of explanation:

First, they used to be as bad as everyone thinks they are. Apparently, dentists weren't great at making sure the patient was as numb as could be. Then, they didn't always get all the nerve fibers out, because those nerves get really, really tiny. Finally, the majority of root canals got infected and caused pain that could be measured on the Richter scale.

No longer!

First, it's now standard procedure to treat the pain and prevent the pain. Yay! On my first root canal, both my brand new regular dentist who'd never seen me before and my brand new endodontist who'd never seen me before, prescribed me enough Vicodin to see me through until the appointment. Otherwise, I think I may have removed my entire lower jaw on my own.

Then, the endodontist went to great lengths to make sure I was completely numb. Swabs of stuff that numb the top layer of skin so the shots don't hurt. Multiple shots in many places, distributing the anesthetic all over the place, and a metered syringe so the anesthetic itself didn't cause pain by creating a huge bubble of liquid pressing on other nerves.

Both times, there was one point I felt some pain. On the first root canal, I could feel some tugging with a bit of owchie pinching. One mention of "Mmmrmffrmm-rrmmff", and he stopped everything, added more anesthetic, waited for it to take hold, and off we went. The second time, apparently, my hard palate had not gotten the note about the anesthesia, so I got two, maybe three shots right in there. Those did hurt, however, understanding the gateway hypothesis of pain management (your brain can only concentrate on one big owie at a time), I dug my nail into my thumb, providing a pain I had control over, and the shots no longer bothered me.

Second! Dentists didn't use to clear out all the nerve fibers during root canals, leaving both very aggravated and angry nerves behind, and the potential for rampant infections in the canal itself. The nerve fibers themselves often have a diameter less than that of a human hair. My endodontist told me this was a real problem until some clever dentist noticed a neurosurgeon using one of those gee-whiz microscopes during a brain surgery. Well, if it helps during brain surgery, why couldn't it help during a root canal? Granted, not as sexy, but even more appreciated. With the technical assistance of excellent micro-vision granted, nerve fibers were hunted down and destroyed like some timely metaphor including an allusion to Osama bin Laden and his Pakistani compound.

Third! The terrible post root canal infections. Happened a lot. Apparently - and this is what my endodontist explained to me - unlike a wound being infected when bacteria is introduced at the time of trauma, what often happens with root nerves is they are traumatized by some other incident, become inflamed - that is, get red, hot, and bothered, and have more bloodflow going to them - and attract stray bacteria in the bloodstream which have managed to avoid the white blood cells. The immune system does not like to attack nerve fibers. Bad things happen. So, a bacterium which lands there is safe. And it has a party. And then bad things happen.

To prevent that, or cure it if that's what's going on, once the nerve root has been extracted and destroyed, the endodontist flushes the entire canal with a bleach solution. Intellectually, I'm a big fan of bleach. Kill the germs! Whiten the laundry! Eliminate the bad smells! Except, I really dislike the smell of bleach, and having that smell in my mouth was probably the most uncomfortable part of the whole procedure. Blech. Worth it though.

After all this is done, the endodontist seals the canal with a substance called gutta percha. Most excellent name, isn't it? Gutta Percha. Gutta Percha. Gutta Percha is the inelastic latex-like sap from a tropical tree, and it's been in commercial use since 1842. When warm, it's ductile and malleable, and when it cools down, it doesn't become brittle like unvulcanized rubber does. That's your botanical/chemistry lesson for today. These days, the demand is so high, that a chemically identical, artificial form of gutta percha is manufactured so we don't kill all the trees.

Once the root canal is filled,  a cotton plug is put in, and a temporary filling is added. One then gets to follow up with one's regular dentist for a crown. The cotton is there to let them know when they've drilled down far enough.

I will say, for a procedure that involved nerve endings so notoriously sensitive it made for a horrifying torture scene in Marathon Man, the current reality is far more pleasant. Of course, being someone who gets anxious about any dental adventures, I took half a Valium before going and was significantly more mellow than I would have been otherwise. Even so, the procedure took only about an hour, the Sith tooth can no longer harm me, and I was so well anesthetized that even half my nose was numb when I left. Lunch at Chili's was interesting, because while I could get food into my mouth, using a straw was adventurous. My server brought me extra napkins and didn't even ask.

I did not get full feeling back in my face until eight hours after the procedure. So, I amused myself by poking different parts of my face or trying to smile at the mirror and determining which muscles were still affected. I had a lovely time chatting with the endodontist and his assistant. He even showed me pictures from a couple of his textbooks when I mentioned the trouble I was having with what may be Sjogren's syndrome. We agreed that the picture of the parotid gland tumor was really, really gross. I scored points for knowing that Lou Gehrig's disease was ALS, not myasthenia gravis.

I'm not saying I'd like a weekly root canal. After all, I'd run out of roots before the year was out. However, I am learning that procedures whose very mention could make me crawl up in a chair and break out in a cold sweat are not actually the Hell on Earth they used to be. In fact, considering the alternative (ice pack, praying for the sweet release of death), I'll take the root canal just about any day.

So, Dr. Bruce Smith of Escondido, thank you to you and your wonderful staff. The Dark Side was defeated. I have one less ticking time bomb in my mouth, and while I may still break into a cold sweat, I know it's more of a conditioned, cultural reflex than anything to do with reality.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Dear God, this is Raven. Try not to piss her off.

This was originally posted on my favorite message board nearly a year ago. Raven, the cat who adopted me in college, had chronic kidney failure. She lived nearly two years after her diagnosis, when the average was six months. She was about the toughest living thing I've ever met, and I was privileged to be part of her life. Here is the eulogy I wrote for her:

Dear God, this is Raven. Try not to piss her off.

On a grey and rainy morning in January 1992, a small black cat wandered into my life. She came through the open apartment door, jumped up on a stool beside the table I was scrubbing, and announced herself. Last Friday, I held her and cried on her and thanked her for being my friend while the vet gave her an overdose of barbiturates. She was eighteen and a half years old.

I could easily write 10,000 words about my kitty. She wasn't actually black. She was a very dark tortoiseshell, and as many cat owners have learned, those lovely markings come with a special attitude.

Raven hated all other animals. At best, she could tolerate their presence in the room, but if they came within two yards of her, she hissed and spat. Closer, and she would attack. When I had roommates with pets, I kept a water pistol to chase Raven away from the other cats. Small as she was, she won nearly every fight she started, and she started a lot of them.

But she liked me, preferred me even. Given her choice, she would always join me at bedtime and sleep curled up next to my head or with her paw over my wrist. As I survived bouts of depression, with nightmares, loneliness, and feelings of utter and absolute failure, Raven stood as guardian and healer. I would wake in the middle of the night from a bad dream and find her awake, standing watch over me, purring. If I cried, she left what she was doing and came to me, and purred and nuzzled me until I could bear going on.

She was no pushover. I could play with her, but if I teased her, I found out (as Calvin and Hobbes once put it), that she was pointy on five of her six ends. The only person who could ever manhandle her was my younger brother. When I was home from college for the summer, I put him in charge of bathing her, after I'd found him holding her by all four paws and running her under the faucet, while she purred contentedly.

She loved men, the smellier the better. If my brother came in from mowing the lawn in July, she went into the throes of ecstasy over his armpits. She made sweet love to a friend's down vest when he was over for a visit. He said he'd seen less explicit porn.

Raven was probably the toughest living creature I have ever known. She was six months old and pregnant when I adopted her. The most she ever weighed was nine pounds. I could not make her an indoor cat; she wouldn't tolerate it. Instead, she would go out and pick fights with whatever pissed her off, and I would patch her up. At least three times, she had to go to the vet for an abscessed wound. She survived her first months on the street, survived an early pregnancy, then being spayed, then her Fight Club injuries.

In January of 2009, the vet told me she had kidney failure, and most cats at her stage lasted about six months. I got to keep her for 15 months. It wasn't even the kidney failure that did it, though it played a role. I noticed about nine months ago that she was losing vision. She didn't really play or do her psycho-kitty-zoom-zooms anymore. She had arthritis in her hips, and it spread. She crept. She was sore. She disliked being handled. Two weeks ago, I finally realized that it was no fun for her being the cat anymore, and to keep her alive any longer would be selfishness on my part.

She was my pet for eighteen years. Usually, I felt more like her pet than anything else. She was not some mellow, lovey-dovey, velcro cat. She was a perpetually pissed-off bitch kitty, and I happened to be one of the few humans she trusted and loved. I have an image in my head of St. Peter desperately holding Raven at arm's length while she twists and claws. He grabs the PA and shouts "We need St. Francis up here, STAT!". Hell certainly wouldn't let her in. They know trouble when they see it, down there.

If anything, perhaps she's at the end of the Rainbow Bridge. She'd make a most excellent Valkyrie, and I'm sure she'd appreciate the day-long brawling and sweaty Viking men at Valhalla. Save one for me, baby cat. I miss you terribly.