Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The compassionate friend; or, "Neglect Your Teeth and They'll Go Away"

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Had a dentist appointment today for a cleaning. I never mind the dentist. Some people are petrified of dentists, but not me. My dental hygienist is fantastic -- her name's Ruth, which is a lovely name for a dental hygienist because it's Hebrew for "compassionate friend." Isn't that nice?

I've been going to Ruth for years, and I always have the same probing questions about dentistry -- but I'm always too afraid to ask. Like, if you go to the dentist and you've got a great mouth with no cavities and very little cleaning to do, how does she feel about this? Is she happy because somebody out there is taking the focus of her chosen profession seriously? Like the way firefighters admire good fire prevention? Or is she secretly upset because there's no challenge? The way some of your more petty mall cops hope there's at least a little shoplifting?

I think she likes the challenge. The first time I went to this particular office, I hadn't been to a dentist in years (no insurance) and Ruth took one look in my mouth and announced that it was going to take a while. She sweated over my open mouth for over an hour, scraping and poking and spritzing, puffing out her cheeks in exasperation from behind a surgical mask, and when she was done I remember her being exhausted but energized, as if she'd spent the day chopping wood. Every so often she likes to remind me of that day. "You're pretty good this time," she'll say. "Not like that first time you came in." And she'll smile.

Ever since then, I've never had to sit in the waiting room. I can waltz in 15 minutes late. And I often do. The receptionists know me by name as soon as I walk in, and if I'm late they just wag their finger and chuckle and say, "Oh, Dan!" Seriously. I'm like a king over there.

Another question I always have about the dentist: What would they do if I refused to open my mouth? How long would they try to cajole me into opening my mouth before giving up and demanding politely that I get the hell out? Not that I'm about to do that -- I just wonder how Ruth and the other hygienists would handle it. It's all part of my bottomless curiosity about how mentally abnormal people function in the world. Like, how many times in a hygienist's career does that happen: a grown adult sits in the chair and keeps his lips pressed shut, shaking his head over and over, going, "Mm-mmm! Mm-mmm!" Does that ever happen, or is that just in movies?

I wonder a lot about what would happen if someone went nuts in a socially inappropriate situation -- what if I gathered up snowballs outside the CVS and tried to start a friendly fight with the cashiers? Or tried to pay for stamps with an equally priced package of beef? Little things amuse me.

Ruth is pretty good about not trying to engage me in small talk. Instead, she does all the talking -- monologuing, which I suppose must be a skill you have to perfect at hygienist school. She once told me about a neighbor who was keeping a rooster for some reason. I can't recall why at the moment, but there you go.

Today, I'd started out the cleaning session by warning her that an icky spot on the inside of my lip was not a cold sore, but that I'd merely slammed a car door into my own face a few days earlier, long story -- actually not that long a story because that's pretty much the gist of it. Ruth countered, telling me was taking down a large pine bough wreath from Christmas, and she leaned toward the wreath to grab it, and she got a twig in the left eye. I said, "Gaaaaaah!" even around the mirror and fingers and sickle probe. But, she added, somehow she had no idea she'd been stuck with a pine-needle twig in the eye until later when her husband noticed she had one regular eye and one red one. That's some bad-ass pain management, and precisely the kind of story you want to hear while you're lying on your back with a lamp shining in your face and sharp metal instruments feeling around the hinge of your jaw.

The actual cleaning bit went well, with the usual mix of drool and sharp pain, and a single tear rolled down the side of my face. My favorite part of any cleaning is always when Ruth is scraping my teeth with a probe, then it suddenly stops as if caught on some kind of outcropping -- then there's an awful stone-on-stone snap, and she starts scraping again. What the hell is chipping off? It sounds enormous, and I probably don't want to know what it is.

After that, I had an x-ray taken. I was tempted to ask Ruth for a copy of it -- "Can I post that on my blog?" -- but I didn't when I realized how dorky that sounded. I figured I'd just blog about it instead. That's not dorky at all.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Overheard Assholes: "Push"

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"What are you pushing me forward for? Go back!"

-- sullen-looking mom in a wheelchair
at Target, to the pre-teen boy helping her
and filling her cart with heavy groceries
(all she had was a broken foot
and it was one of those wheelchairs you can operate yourself)

Monday, February 02, 2009


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I keep getting tagged in the "25 things" Internet meme that's being passed around, like a cute catchphrase or the flu. You're supposed to write a list detailing 25 things that no one knows about you, then publish the list -- making said list obsolete because now people know all these things about you. Thus, another pop culture phenomenon eats itself. Hooray!

Coming up with 25 things about me that no one else knows is more difficult than it sounds. I don't keep secrets. Even if I did, I wouldn't write them here, thank you very much. So I'm ignoring that bit. Some people may know some of these things. Some people may know others. The point is, these are little-known facts about me, 25 of them, and I'll try to veer as far away from self-indulgence as I can. M'kay?

1. When I wear a watch, I wear the watch face on the inside of my wrist. I picked this up from my maternal grandfather, who used to wear his watch the same way. I remember seeing it done that way when I was a kid, and it seemed like a fine thing to do at the time. Besides, it's much more comfortable.

2. Nevertheless: when I mime "looking at my watch" for someone, I look at the outside of my wrist. It's just easier than explaining #1.

3. My grandfather, by the way, was probably one of the last people on the planet still sniffing snuff regularly. He bought his snuff in rectangular foil-wrapped packages that looked like little sticks of butter. The snuff was transferred to a brown glass bottle he carried in his pocket. When he needed a sniff, he'd tap out a little brown pile into his palm, fine like cinnamon. He'd pinch some in his brown stained fingers, poke it into his nostril, and take a quick snoot. I have never used snuff but at one time it also seemed like a fine thing to do.

4. In my office we have a coffee machine that I don't use, because the coffee it makes is shit. It uses packets, not loose grounds. While some of those kinds of machines can make good coffee, this isn't one of them. Anyway. On top of the coffee machine, we keep stacks of paper cups in which to drink the shit coffee. Whenever I walk by the machine, I check to see if the stacks of cups are evenly distributed in height. If not, I make them even.

5. I have been caught doing #4 every single time. I can't imagine what people think I'm doing.

6. As I said, the coffee that comes out of that maker is shit. There are people who drink it regularly. Either they don't know what a cup of decent coffee tastes like, or they don't care. I feel bad for them either way. They work hard and deserve good coffee.

7. I won't swim under any circumstances. No, I'm not interested in learning. No, I don't feel like I'm missing out.

8. Some asshole I used to know once told me I "murdered my future children" because I refuse to learn how to swim. That's one of the shittiest, needlessly mean things anyone's ever said to me. He thought he was being helpful. What a cock.

9. If I could get away with it and not be considered mentally unstable, I'd buy 7 copies of the same outfit and not bother picking out new clothes every day. I don't kid myself that I'm "expressing myself" when I pick out what to wear on any given day. I wear what's clean and in my closet. I'm OK with it.

10. Speaking of clothes, I think the fashion industry is pointless and elitist. I'm not talking about average people who like to make clothes. I mean The Fashion Industry. The one in New York and Paris and L.A. The industry where pompous frauds create ridiculous non-clothes and then fawn all over themselves or tear each other down according to their own arcane rules. Yes, I saw "The Devil Wears Prada." I saw Meryl Streep's little monologue about how a ridiculous-looking scrap of fabric that someone calls "a dress" gets filtered through various channels, becoming tamer, more mainstream, until a barely-if-at-all-related dress that The Little People will wear finally makes its way down into mass-market stores. It's like "trickle-down economics," except with apparel and just as elitist. I call bullshit. Sorry. I realize you may not agree. It's not just the fashion industry -- I hate any elitism in any art form -- but that's just the most egregious example I can think of right now.

11. I get about two haircuts a year. I don't get haircuts more often because, while my barber is a fantastic guy -- my cousin, in fact -- I hate having to spend 35 minutes sitting in the chair making conversation. I'll gladly talk with him over a beer any other time, but it's too awkward when my hair's wet and there's snippings all over my face and lips and he's got razor-sharp metal around my ears, throat, and eyes. I just want to sit in the chair, have him cut my hair quickly and in total silence, and then let me up. We can make chit-chat afterward.

12. Oh, and when he holds the mirror to show me the back of my head, I always say, "That's great," even though I can't tell what the hell's going on over there.

13. I only spent a few weeks or months in kindergarten, then was moved to first grade because I'd been reading by age 2. The only things I remember from kindergarten: (1) toilets in the classroom, (2) nap time during which we had to put our heads on the table and sleep, except I was never tired so I stared at the blinds, (3) a creepy puppet named P. Mooney.

14. It was only 2008 when I finally got up the nerve to Google "P. Mooney." You know what? That fucking puppet is still creepy.

15. When I was in first grade -- I must've been about 5 years old -- I got in trouble for writing "FUCK" on my desk. I've been swearing ever since.

16. I don't understand why some people don't swear. They're just words. Besides, it's fun and relieves stress! Try it!

17. Things that make me stressed that might not make other people stressed: being submerged in water, traveling, being in high places, insects -- actually any animal with antennae -- and using the phone. I hate using the phone.

18. I'm a kid, maybe 6 or 7. The phone rings, I answer it. A man with a brusque voice doesn't give his name and asks for Tony. My dad's name is Tony, but he's not home, and I say so. The guy on the other end of the phone says, "You tell him: 'Tony's in trouble.' Got that?" I don't say anything. He says, louder: "Hear me? Tony's in trouble! OK?" Then the guy hangs up. I run to my mom who was folding laundry and I tell her about it and start crying because I think someone's going to find my dad and kill him. She says it's probably one of his friends playing a joke. I think she was right, because my dad came home just fine and didn't seem to know who that could've been. To this day, I have no idea what it was about.

19. I love airports. The stores, the gates, the crap restaurants and bars, hundreds of rows of seats, convenience stores and shops that sell T-shirts and tacky tchotchkes and national newspapers and every kind of magazine. The only place I feel comfortable eating a Toblerone is in an airport. All the luggage and the variety of people -- it's fascinating. Everyone is surrounded by technology: speakers referring you to electronic boards updated second-by-second from radar and x-rays and giant whirring conveyor belts and steel and glass structures and those machines that flatten pennies into oval souvenirs and people dressed for travel with their gaze locked to their laptops or Blackberries and TV screens everywhere streaming live cable news. I love the fucking airport. I love layovers. If the airport weren't so difficult to get to, I'd go there just to hang out.

20. I'm also fascinated by places where there are no people and no technology. Most of these places tend to be in the polar regions, which is why I'm fascinated by the polar regions, like Antarctica. I'd love to visit, because it's the closest I'm ever going to get to being on another planet. Alert, Nunavut, Canada is the northern-most permanently inhabited place on Earth. There are five sorry son-of-a-bitches living there. Five. Enough for doubles-dominoes while the other poor fucker reads a magazine. What the hell is life like there? What was life like before now? Do they ever get sick of each other? Barrow, Alaska. Look at the Google Map satellite view of that place. Jesus. It looks like a hunk of bad cheese. How did human beings ever evolve to live in a place like that? People living off nothing in the middle of the desert. Why don't they move?

View Larger Map

21. Scenario: Somebody says I'm being sent to a remote desert island and I get one variety of vegetable to eat for the rest of my life, and that's it. They'll fly it out to me, or maybe there's already a lifetime supply on the island. I've got my choices narrowed down to either yellow bell peppers or okra.

22. I suck at gardening and I'm fine with that.

23. I used to spend hours at a time shooting pool on a hand-made, regulation-size pool table built by a tenant of my dad's, up in the attic. Real slate top covered in cheap felt with pennies glued to the rails as markers. I was pretty good at it but I haven't played in ages, because the only pool tables where I live are located in beaten-up dive bars that I don't want to go into. The second I get the money, I'm putting a pool table in my house. Being a professional pool player used to sound like the best way to make a living. It still does.

24. If I hadn't skipped kindergarten, as described in #13, I shudder to think what the hell my life would be like. I wouldn't have met any of the people I knew then, which led to me meeting other people later on, which led to me meeting the people I know now. I wouldn't have gone to the same schools. I probably wouldn't have gone into the career I did. I'm having an entirely different life than I might have had, and the one I might've had seems fucking awful. When I think about everything that's happened in 32 years, all I see is something a lot like natural selection: a series of precarious coincidences leading to a creature that has evolved to fit perfectly in its surroundings.

25. Got it. Yellow peppers, definitely.
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