March 6, 1998
I've just come back from the dentist, where I had the pleasure of imbibing nitrous oxide during a filling. No, I'm not WUI (Writing Under the Influence), the stuff wears off too fast.
But the experience is still fresh enough in my memory that I can recall my thoughts. I found myself thinking about Oxygen. They strap this little breathing device on you, and soon you just sort of relax a little, as the nitrous reaches your nervous system and sings it gentle lullabies. Then the dentist sticks this 18-inch needle into your gums in half a dozen places, and all you can think is, "hmm, what an interesting sensation as that sharp point penetrates my skin."
For me, it was even more "interesting" when he started drilling the tooth, and the novocaine wasn't quite strong enough in one area, and the drill sent repeated, shooting pain through my nerve ending. My initial reaction was abject horror, but then I sucked in a couple of extra gulps of nitrous, and as he returned to the sensitive spot, I was amused to find that it didn't bother me. Yes, it hurt, but what is pain, after all?
Have you ever had a bad knot in your back muscles? Then when your wife or husband rubs it for you, and they hit just the right spot, you feel this sharp, shooting pain go through your whole body, originating from that point. You moan, and they stop and ask, "Did that hurt?" And you answer, "yes, please do it again". That is pleasurable pain, I guess because we instinctively know that it's good for us, that it's bringing needed blood and oxygen to a blocked area, freeing it. I'm not suggesting that S&M freaks are onto something, but there's even some pleasurable pain in sex, too.
The pain that is torture is pain that we fear. When I brought my daughter to the doctor for a shot recently, she was almost hysterical with fear, and screamed and cried when the needle went in. Then she came home and played with her pet rabbit, and he scratched her with his claws, and she just said "Ow!" and let it go; yet the rabbit scratch was much sharper and deeper than the little doctor's shot.
When you remove fear of pain, nervous anticipation of pain, it's just another body sensation, a stimulation of nerve endings, that can almost feel good. (Of course, I'm not really talking about the pain of having your legs ripped off or your hand crushed by a 14-wheeler.) That's what nitrous does: it takes away the nervousness, so you can observe the pain, experience it, and in a weird sense, enjoy it. Years ago, I used to get allergy shots, 3 little needles injected into my arms once a week for almost 2 years. After awhile, I discovered this same phenomenon. I was so accustomed to the experience that all the fear went away. I knew exactly how it would feel, and could virtually prepare my body for the sensation, and ultimately even look forward to it. The little rush of nerves and blood was something like a cold splash of water, or stretching a tight muscle.
What does this have to do with Oxygen? Nothing, really. That was the other thing I was thinking about while on the chair, and nitrous was substituting for oxygen in my lungs. It was so noticeable to breathe the nitrous through my nose, versus breathing regular air through my mouth. After a few hits of nitrous, even though it made pain into pleasure, I found I wanted a dose of stronger stuff, of O2 rather than NO. And because of the clairvoyance brought on by the latter, I gained a new appreciation for the nourishing feeling of breathing the former. I remembered fondly when I was in Costa Rica, visiting the rain forest, and how delicious the air tasted, literally tasted, because it is so rich with oxygen. Talk about a natural high.
And then he took off the nitrous mask to finish filling the tooth, and I was vividly aware of this man, standing right over my mouth, exhaling almost directly into my nostrils. Fortunately, he didn't have bad breath, but where I was seeking an draught of oxygen, I was getting used, depleted exhalant, mostly CO2. I found myself timing my breathing, to inhale at the same time he was, rather than while he was exhaling toward me; I could have measured the oxygen content of each breath to scientific precision. When he finally finished, I sucked in as much free, clear air as I could, and fantasized about going back to Costa Rica in a couple of months.
Today's assignment: if you work in a stuffy office, go outside at lunchtime, and just breathe. If your stuffy office is in a polluted city, then maybe you should wait until you get home. If your home is also in a polluted city, then maybe you should buy an oxygen tank. Or at least get a whole bunch of big houseplants.
That will be all.
© 1998 David N. Townsend
The Beanstalk grows out of my head, so to speak, but I welcome
any seeds that readers may wish to plant. Just as long as you don't use
too much fertilizer. Send me your comments, ideas, drool, at
and I'll occasionally respond to, publish, or otherwise dispose of them.
Need more? In addition to the rich and growing archives of this column,
you might want to visit The Site itself, and any of my other collections, on
Communication, Baseball, Rock 'n' Roll, or Travel.