"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Holy Molar

I'm recovering from a recent visit to the dentist to take care of a cavity lurking underneath an already-existing filling. That's like going into the assessor's office to pay your vehicle tax and coming out to find your car's been ticketed for an expired registration.

My first few childhood visits to the dentist were memorable. Perhaps "infamous" is the more appropriate adjective. One morning my dad said he would pick me up after school and we would "do something special together - it's a surprise!" I was beside myself with anticipation all day, telling classmates my dad and I were going on an adventure that afternoon. When the dismissal bell rang I ran to meet my dad and it was a surprise all right -- we crossed the street and entered a dental office in the basement of a neighboring house. Dr. Smith was an energetic man with big hands and highly-corrected vision who initially overwhelmed me with his outsized persona. While I eventually became quite fond of him, his dexterity and visual acuity were... not ideally suited for his chosen profession. Many dentists craft jewelry as a hobby, a natural extension of their skill set. I think Dr. Smith pounded out anvils in his spare time.

While perhaps not at the top of his profession he was certainly competent, and I continued to see him until I graduated from high school, coinciding with his retirement. But back to that first visit: I sat in the waiting room, not really sure what to expect. A bear of a man wearing a white smock and thick glasses with an additional set of magnifying lenses attached poked his head through the doorway, saying, "C'mon back here with me, Big John!" I walked into the examination room with all its unsettling equipment: consoles with dials, devices attached to long hoses, the overhead light that always blinds you while being adjusted into position. Dr. Smith helped me into the long, contoured lounge chair and said he was going to take a look at my teeth to make sure they were healthy. He asked if that was OK with me and I nodded my head "Yes." He replied, "Great! Now let's open up," and I vigorously shook my head "NO." In the space of two seconds I decided to adopt an adversarial position for the remainder of the visit, refusing to open my mouth. He asked again, then cajoled, then insisted, then called my father into the room to help out. My dad grabbed my nose and chin to pry my jaw open so Dr. Smith could insert a clamp to prevent me from closing it again. Strangely, I made no attempt to escape the confines of the chair or office; I sat there throughout the entire ordeal but just refused to cooperate in any way.

After looking with the mirror and running the various picks around my teeth and gums, Dr. Smith removed the clamp, permitting me to again intractably clench my jaw shut. He noodled around behind me for a few moments and then told me to open up again. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it... After calling on my dad for another assist Dr, Smith prepared to x-ray my teeth. He inserted a holder with a small square of film attached into my forcibly-opened mandible and told me to bite down. This was a poor choice of words since I nearly took his finger off when I did so.

During my most recent visit to the dentist it was time for that same "full series," and the modern method is truly out of science fiction; I stood stock-still at a mark on the floor while an array of tiny cameras attached to flexible tracks traced trajectories all around my head. The x-ray machine Dr. Smith used all those decades ago, while no doubt state-of-the-art for its time, was still quite large and clunky to operate. A huge articulated arm dropped from the ceiling and held a radiation-generating head, about the size of a portable television set, with handles on either side to maneuver it into place, and coming to a cone-shaped point on the side closest to my face. It looked like a space-age weapon to me. Then Dr. Smith said something regrettable: "I'm gonna shoot some x-rays." In the context of having this "weapon" pointed at my head, I understood him to say, "I'm gonna shoot a ray gun..." I interpreted the unstated but implied outcome of this action to be, "... in order to zap a gaping hole right through your little head."

He slowly worked the ungainly device closer and closer to the film holder; the closer it got, the more panic-stricken I became. While zeroing in on the targeted spot he unfortunately made contact with my face -- the tip of the cone-shaped end brushed against my cheek. By that point my eyes could not bug any further out of my head, so I communicated my fear in the only method left to me -- I lurched to my left and vomited all over the floor. Dr. Smith stood there, surveying the scene. After exhaling a long breath he quietly said, "That's what the sink's for, son."

The release of fear via hurling exhausted me and I put up no further fight as he finished. The film indicated there were several cavities to deal with. As I continued to recline, flaccid and spent, I heard him tell my father: "He needs some fillings, Howard -- but I just don't have it in me to do anything else with him today." We made an appointment to return in another week. Despite my abysmal behavior and the mess I'd made, Dr. Smith remained courteous and upbeat as I was leaving and directed me to his "treasure chest" -- a collection of cheap plastic trinkets from which I could choose anything I wanted. This unexpected bounty completely changed my feelings about the whole experience; if only someone had told me this was the planned denouement before I'd climbed into the chair, I would have been much more complicit.

I came back the next week, excited by the prospect of getting to choose another toy when these "fillings" were over with. I sat back in the chair and when Dr. Smith asked me to "open up" I did so enthusiastically, unhinging my jaw so wide you could see clear down to my stomach. I was completely cooperative, opening and closing and turning this way and that right up until the moment he presented a needle full of Novocain that looked to be a foot long and started to jab at my tender gums. (This was before the practice of "pre-numbing" with a swab soaked in lidocaine.) Familiar with the look on my face, and how I expressed feelings of panic, he withdrew the needle and reminded me where the sink was. I managed to get past the fear that visit without further incident. However, right through my final appointment with Dr. Smith many years later, I refused injections any time drilling was required.

At last week's appointment for the subterranean cavity removal the dentist numbed me up real good (pre-numbing completely changed my feelings about needles); I was without feeling from ear to nose and jaw to left eyebrow. He applied the drill to my tooth and... I felt every bit of it. I'm fairly certain Dr. Smith's spirit was in the room that day, working through this new dentist to extract his revenge against me.

I know the correct phrase is exact revenge; I used "extract" in that previous sentence as a meager attempt at a play on words. But it does remind me of when I had all four of my wisdom teeth pulled during my college years and, for a brief moment, was convinced the oral surgeon had broken my jaw. I didn't know where the sink was in his office, either.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Driven To Distraction

I had what I gather is an uncommon experience among teenagers -- I passed my road test the first time I took it. Most of my acquaintances came back from their first (or second, or third) trip to the DMV looking dejected, with that brutal command still ringing in their ears: "Put it in Park!"

Well, to be honest -- I heard it, too. While performing the last task on the examiner's checklist, parallel parking, I managed to ever-so-slightly nudge one of the two aluminum poles sitting in stands to simulate the length of a typical urban parking vacancy. I'd followed all the steps:
  • Turned on my blinker to indicate I was going to park in the space.
  • Come to a complete stop.
  • Checked driver's side and rearview mirrors to ensure no approaching traffic.
  • Cautiously backed into the opening, briefly stopping at each point where I spun the wheel to change direction.
  • Centered my car so as not to crowd the imaginary bumpers in front of and behind me.
It was that last step that appeared to trip me up. As part of my "centering" exercise (not in the sense of practicing yoga, although some deep breathing would have certainly helped me get through the anxiety of this ordeal), I rolled back just a few inches further than I should have, making contact with the rear pole. There was no "BANG!" or "CLUNK!", just a barely audible scraping and the pole tilted 5 degrees off its axis -- "Put it in Park!" The instructor unbuckled himself and exited the car to inspect the situation from the outside. I sat there, flustered and embarrassed, and while trying to get a glance at what was going on via the rearview mirror I mentally laid the blame for this fiasco where it clearly belonged -- in the lap of my Driver's Ed instructor, Mr. Smith.

Driver's Ed was a six-week course -- four hours of after-school instruction each week and then a couple of hours of in-vehicle practice on Saturday mornings. There were maybe 20 of us together in the classroom setting, where we learned the rules of the road and watched instructional films that typically included careless drivers who cruised the interstate with a devil-may-care attitude until that fateful day when they failed to come to a full stop, or crossed a double yellow line, or didn't adjust their side mirrors properly and found themselves involved in a crash of such magnitude that you expected a mushroom cloud to hover over the scene of the catastrophe. On Saturdays we met up with Mr. Smith in groups of four to get acquainted with the workings of the automobile, and then we'd take turns driving for 20 or 30 minutes each. Of course my best friend Bert and I signed up for the same time on Saturdays, with classmates Leah and Angela rounding out our foursome. 

Bert, I think, may have been born in the back of a station wagon; he was a natural driver -- quite comfortable behind the wheel and expert at turns and stops and keeping the car moving in a straight line down the road. (As an adult, he's become an expert mechanic just as a hobby, performing virtually all the maintenance required for his fleet of vehicles short of tanning his own ostrich leather from which to stitch a pair of custom driving slippers, and on weekends he precisely navigates his Alfa Romeo GTV6 through high-speed turns at track events.) Each time we switched places, the new driver had to go through the same routine of checking all the various settings in the car: mirrors, seat position, buckle up, etc. One time when it was Leah's turn at the wheel, she methodically went through the list and turned to Mr. Smith for approval to start to drive. He gave her the OK but then Bert and I, who were the self-appointed Checklist Monitors for the girls, cleared our throats and queried from the backseat -- "Haven't you FORGOTTEN SOMETHING, LEAH??" We'd clearly ratted her; she frantically went back through her actions and checked mirrors, seatbelt, instrument panel... "What? What did I forget to do??" she cried. Bert and I looked at each other with smug satisfaction and said in unison, "You didn't check the door locks!" I'm sure I heard Mr. Smith exhale "Oh, Jesus..." while Leah gave us a look in the rearview mirror that would have caused our balls to shrivel if we'd had any. She clicked the master control to secure the front and back, surely wishing Mr. Smith would order the two of us out of the car so she could "accidentally" run over us on her way out of the parking lot.

On one of our last Saturdays it was time to learn how to parallel park. Mr. Smith said he was going to teach us his foolproof system for parallel parking, and it truly was a marvel: he placed three pieces of adhesive tape at strategic locations on the car windows. In order to park, all we had to do was to line up the tape with one of the two poles he used to mark the spot, just like the DMV used for the test. We'd back up until the first piece of tape lined up with the front pole; cut the wheel and back up until the second piece lined up with the same pole; then cut the wheel the other way and straighten out until the third piece lined up with the back pole. This brilliant approach eliminated all the mystery and anxiety. There was only one slight flaw with his innovation -- you weren't allowed to stick tape on the windows of the car you drove for your road test. I guess he figured this would generate "muscle memory" so we'd "feel" the proper alignment and timing to adjust our steering. When I came home after that lesson, I bragged to my dad that I'd learned how to parallel park in under an hour that morning and "it's really easy!" He looked at me skeptically and then dragged me out to our trusty Ford Falcon, whereupon he had me drive to the neighboring city of Annapolis, MD so I could show him just how expert I now was at this difficult skill. Without tape.

Annapolis was founded in the mid-1600s and has narrow, twisting, hilly streets -- like all the first cities in the original colonies, it was developed with a transportation infrastructure suitable for livestock but without anticipating automobiles. Fast-forward a few hundred years and, with cars parked on both sides of the street, you could barely drive between them. My dad took me to one particularly "charming" neighborhood, pointed to an open space and commanded me to park in it. Tape-deprived, I struggled for many minutes before awkwardly placing our car in the space. Did I mention the Falcon did not have power steering? As soon as I'd finished parking, Dad told me to pull out and then pointed to the next open spot -- "Park here." In the length of a half-mile I must have parked the car two dozen times, on both sides of the street, along curving curbs, on up- and downhill slopes. My father had broken me in order to remake me... but now, after that brutal exercise, I truly *did* know how to parallel park.

Which is why, when I tapped that pole at the DMV, I was genuinely shocked; I thought, "I've got this!" when starting the process. The instructor was gone for what felt like several minutes, and I was already reaching to unbuckle my seatbelt since I knew he'd make me surrender the wheel for failing the test. To my surprise, he got back in on the passenger side and said, "Let's go!" I was so flummoxed I nearly forgot to signal before pulling out of the space but managed to collect my composure and navigated to the end of the course. My dad was waiting at the curb for our return; I pulled into an open parking space and as the instructor exited the car he nodded in my direction and said, "He passed," but shot a look toward my father that clearly completed that sentence with, "... by the skin of his teeth."

Of course, I was thrilled and nearly tumescent with my achievement. After I got my temporary permanent license printed out, Dad tossed me the keys and told me to "drive 'er home." I came out of Annapolis, along the bridge crossing the Severn River, and immediately missed the turn for the exit toward our house. I didn't panic -- we'd covered this in class: "Rather than try to make an abrupt move in traffic, drive safely to the next exit, leave the highway, and return to your exit from the other direction." My father, however, had NOT taken Driver's Ed at his high school because such a program did not then exist (I am also not certain how many days he actually spent attending his high school, much less voluntarily return to it on Saturdays.) As I started to fly past the exit he hollered, "PULL OVER!" I quickly turned into the painted zone separating ramp traffic from cars continuing along the road, remembering to turn on the emergency flashers that we'd been instructed to use to signify vehicle immobile/out of service. "You're not supposed to do this!" I protested. My father looked at me with the same mixture of anger and consternation on his face as when I was a two-year-old and had just taken a crap in the corner of the bathroom rather than in the training potty. "Just... back... up..." he said, through clenched teeth. I slowly inched in reverse to a position where I could re-enter the roadway. When I saw an opening I gunned it, tires squealing as I gathered enough speed to join the flow. We spent the rest of the twenty-minute drive home in silence. I pulled into our driveway and as I exited the car my father finally spoke to me: "You can turn off the flashers now."