After my fourth or fifth wife Debbie drowned off the coast of Arizona, I went through a protracted period of mourning, in the afternoon and evening as well. She hated “Debbie”, but I could never remember how she spelled Deborah, or Debora, or Debra. I decided, in any event, to distract myself from my grief by enrolling in dental school. There was a time when dental school was regarded as the province of those not smart or ambitious enough for medical school, but those days had long passed. An orthodontist could make as much as an anesthesiologist, especially an anesthesiologist who insisted on working from home, and I’d long been fascinated by teeth. I loved how, unlike other body parts, you got two sets of them, and in many cases were paid for losing the first set, as though it were a matter of volition, rather than predestined. I loved how, over the millennia, different ones had come to perform different functions — some to tear, others to grind. It fascinated me to imagine a time when hominids’ molars were in front and incisors in back. I could easily envision those with that configuration being eliminated from the gene pool over the course of evolution, and chuckled at the thought that at one point frontal incisors might have been as big a turn-on as huge, absurdly globular breasts are to the readers of modern men’s magazines.
Dental school turned out not to be as glamorous or fun as I’d hoped it might, though I can honestly say I’ve never laughed as much as at the nitrous oxide parties we would have on weekends. I was sorely disheartened by the realization that during my residency I might be required to work four or five consecutive 16-hour shifts, and decided to opt for a career as a hygienist, the horror stories about repetitive strain injury and bitten digits be damned.
I believe there’s something very beautiful about the patient/hygienist relationship, which involves the former placing enormous trust in someone he or she has in many cases never even met, essentially saying, “You are complete stranger to me, brother or sister, but I shall allow you to look with little mirrors into the darkest corners of my second most intimate orifice, and even to insert your rubbery fingers therein.”
As regular readers of these little essays know, my sense of humor has been called zany, wacky, and even cruel. While leaving it to you to judge for yourself, I will admit that, after humming along off-key with the radio at the beginning of my career, I took later to being very conversational with my parents for no reason other than that I was immoderately amused by their attempts to speak intelligibly with mouths full of my hands and instruments. “So what line of work are you in?” I would ask cheerily, and then, before they’d fully cleared their throats, say, “Wider,” or, “Close a little bit,” or even, “Turn toward me.” If someone came in wearing a flag lapel pin. or with a Bush Cheney bumper sticker on his or her forehead, I could be counted on to steer the conversation, one-sided though it may have been, to favorite movies. I would talk about how much we hygienists love Marathon Man, in which Sir Laurence Olivier performs dental torture (all right, enhanced interrogation technique) on Dustin Hoffman. I would speak of how that scene had made me realize what excruciating pain I could inflict with just the tiniest slip.
Yesterday at the gym, after I finished my half-hour on the stationary bicycle and headed for the strengthening machines, I found myself surrounded by fellow fitness enthusiasts who made me feel short. This doesn’t happen often, as I am 6-1, but when it does happen, it is profoundly demoralizing. Cynical as I am, I have come to believe that that which doesn’t kill you doesn’t always make you stronger, but sometimes just almost kills you.