I went to the dentist today for my semiannual cleaning. My dentist here is a jolly, efficient former football player, who spends an average of 60 seconds with me every six months. I spend the rest of the half hour chatting with Ruth Ann, the motherly woman who shows me pictures of her two new grandbabies.
My dental-care experience has changed a lot in the last ten years. I was deathly afraid of the dentist for my entire childhood. Indelibly etched upon my memory is the trip up the elevator to one of the top floors of the downtown medical building, the yellowish molded plastic furniture and Highlights magazines in the waiting room (every time I see Mary Richards' apartment on old episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I get flashbacks to the decor in that waiting room), and the tortures awaiting me in the back room.
I'm not sure why I was so afraid. I knew they were going to saw away at the plaque on my teeth with those little sharp implements, and I knew they were going to buzz ticklish areas of my palette uncomfortably with the tooth polisher. But because I inherited my dad's good teeth, I never had a cavity -- still haven't, as a matter of fact. So the horrors of the drill and the novocaine and so forth were unknown to me. Nevertheless, I dreaded the dentist. I never was all that conscientious about oral hygiene -- I was known from time to time to claim that I had brushed my teeth, when actually I'd simply run my toothbrush under the water in case Mom felt it to check -- and I hated being scolded about it by the hygienist.
I still recall as if it were yesterday the day that I was given red pills to chew, then presented with a mirror to examine my stained teeth. Supposedly the coloring marked where I wasn't brushing well. I had to watch a video about proper brushing on that visit, but its lessons stuck less well than the marvelous machine on which I watched it, one of those fantastic filmstrip projectors in a suitcase where the top half, propped up, became a screen, and the image was projected from behind while a cassette tape played the audio and automatically advanced the film. (To this day my gold standard for satisfying analog machine feedback is the heavy silver knob one turns to advance a filmstrip, with its satisfying yet softly padded click-into-place.)
In the nineties I mostly avoided dentists. When I had to venture into their offices, I finally learned the right way for me to brush; overly vigorous sawing back and forth actually wore concavities into my front teeth, little half-moons curving instead of out, necessitating the first dental work I ever had done besides wisdom tooth removal. Since then I've gradually overcome my fear of dentists, bit by bit. I no longer felt likely to be harangued by them for my tooth care failures. Today I found myself reclining comfortably in the chair, having my mouth poked in various places, my toes uncurled and my fists unclenched. When I notice just how relaxed I was, I wonder what changed between then and now. Is it just that I'm playing the role of adult to the hilt, trading stories about kids with my fellow adult Ruth Ann? Or is it that I'm no longer worried about what's going to happen to my teeth, since it's all certain to be downhill from here?