A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


According to a survey conducted in 2003 by the American Dental Association, 41 percent of us would be more likely to visit a dentist more often if they would just eliminate the possibility of pain from the traditional dental experience.

Yeah, right.  Like I’m really going to believe that 59 percent of you said: “Pain?  Nah – it isn’t an issue.  I actually enjoy having someone stick a needle into my mouth, or drill on my teeth until smoke curls from my nostrils.  I’m fine with all of that.  It’s that blasted little toilet they have us spit into.  That thing just scares me to death.”

Of COURSE we would be more likely to visit a dentist more often if it wasn’t for the pain.  Just like we would be more likely to eat Brussels’s sprouts if it wasn’t for the taste, or more likely to jump out of airplanes if it wasn’t for the ground, or more likely to channel hop through late night television if it wasn’t for Howard Stern.  Normal people just have a natural aversion to certain things, and pain is certainly one of them.

Thankfully, I was born with good, sturdy teeth.  They are straight enough that I didn’t need orthodontia, and strong enough that they seem to resist decay no matter how much Dr Pepper I drink.  I brush and floss faithfully, and I see my dentist several times a year.

Which is not to say that my dentist actually peers into my mouth several times a year.  My dentist is my brother-in-law, Clive, and I see him whenever the family gets together.  Most recently it was over a plate of tacos and chili rellenos at a local Mexican restaurant, and for some reason he didn’t ask to look into my mouth.

This has not always been the case.  When I was growing up he saw himself as my own personal Dental Gestapo.

“Let’s take a look at those choppers,” Clive would say whenever we went to California for a visit.  Almost inevitably, he would ask this while I was still finishing off the black licorice Mom brought for the trip, so things looked much worse in there than they actually were.

He would shake his head and click his tongue.  “It’s a good thing I’ve got some free time tomorrow,” he would say with great foreboding.  “We may have to pull them all out.”

I would spend the next 12 hours in abject terror.  I had seen my Mom go through several root canals, and it looked like something out of a medieval torture chamber.  So I skipped dinner and snacks, brushing my teeth every 15 minutes or so until it was time to go to Clive’s office.

“Make sure we’ve got all the stuff we need to pull teeth out,” he would tell his assistants as he led me into the x-ray room.  “And clear out the schedule.  We may be here all day.”

I was pretty much a basket case by the time he walked into the examination room with my x-rays in hand.

“Maybe I need to get a new x-ray machine,” he would say as he studied my x-rays, “but I can’t see anything here.  Not a single cavity.”  He almost seemed disappointed, like he was looking forward to pulling out all my teeth (this is probably where I got the idea that the patron saint of dentists is the Marquis de Sade).

For my part, I was so relieved that I didn’t mind the discomfort of the thorough cleaning he always gave my teeth, or the fluoride treatment that always made me gag.  Then he’d send me out to pick out a new toothbrush and a new tube of Crest, but not before he warned: “Come back next time.  I’ll have a new x-ray machine by then, and I’m sure we can find some cavities to fill.”

Come to think of it, maybe it isn’t pain that needs to be eliminated from the dental experience to make it more appealing.  Maybe it’s brothers-in-law.

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— © Joseph Walker

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