Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lost my nerve


Teeth. Not mine. [Photo credit: gillicious]

My first clue that something was wrong was the extreme pain on the right side of my face. Not being one to jump to conclusions, I waited a day while the pain intensified and spread to my right ear and the right side of my neck. Once the pain had gotten worse, I decided that something had to be done. But being a chicken shit, I waited one extra day to see if I could tough it out until the tooth died and the pain subsided on its own.

Since I am in San Diego at the moment, I wondered if I could make it long enough to get back to Seattle and have the work done there. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be in agony for the next several days, plus do a two-day train ride ingesting fist-fulls of anti-inflammatories every four hours. Now that it’s all done, I’m in a better position to see the irony. Before the procedure, your jaw hurts and you can’t chew on one side. Afterwards, your jaw hurts and you still can’t chew on one side. But for a different reason. I think that’s the essence of modern medicine: in exchange for money, you get a nice-sounding reason for your pain.

Of course, there really was no alternative but to see the dentist. I did consider acupuncture, but I don’t like needles, and if I’m going to get stuck with one, it’s going to have drugs in it. When he got me in the chair, I told him about the pain all over the right side of my face. He started poking me with iron spikes. Then he told me to open my mouth. This is not uncommon in people who are meeting me for the first time.

Once he isolated the tooth that was in pain he banged on it with a metal rod. This was to confirm that I was in pain. I was pretty sure about being in pain, and I thought I had conveyed that with sincerity, but I guess we disagreed. Now he was sure, so he left. His assistant pressed an x-ray camera against my cheek, put a playing card in my mouth, and laid a lead apron over my torso. She said it made quite the statement. I thought so too. It said, “I’m in the kitchen, but don’t eat what I’m cooking.”

The dentist came back in shortly thereafter with the results. The x-rays confirmed it. “We’ll need to go into the living tissue and remove the decayed parts. So we’ll need to do root canal treatment.”

I enjoyed that the dentist called it root canal “treatment.” Root canal treatment is like a spa treatment, only with comically-oversized needles and drills instead of hot towels and Swedes.

(Grammar fans: did I mean “hot [towels and Swedes]” or “[hot towels] and Swedes?”)

A root canal, for those who don’t know, is a dental procedure that dentists recommend when tooth decay gets into the roots of the tooth, where nerves and tiny blood vessels are. To save the tooth, the dentist drills away all the rotten stuff and pretty much everything else and opens up enough space to put in some new condominiums.

Once the tooth is completely hollowed out, they fill it in and put a crown on it. It’s called a crown because by the time you have one, your tooth is a shell that’s dead inside, which is a perfect metaphor for most royal families in the West. Thus I have proven that I can make toothless remarks about systems of government whilst writing about my toothless teeth. Somebody get me a Pulitzer.

With the confirmation that a root canal was necessary, I was directed to an endodontist, and was fortunate enough to be seen the very same day, depending upon your definition of the word “fortunate.”

I was quite nervous about this procedure because, when I was younger, people would speak of root canals the same way they would speak of jumping into a vat of cactii or voiding roses out your urethra or dating my first girlfriend. I imagined it to be an ordeal. It was the Biblical plague God would have rained upon the Egyptians had the deaths of every firstborn Egyptian boy not put the exclamation point on the sentence.

Maybe during the Reagan years, it lived up to the hype. Advances in technology have rendered it merely boring. In fact, I think I may have fallen asleep during the procedure. When I woke up there were Risk pieces all over my face and the assistant was struggling mightily to take Russia. So there you have it. Root canal treatment is boring for everyone involved. So boring that it makes Risk seem fun.

I was conscious for the root canal except for the parts when I wasn’t. But I was also numb as shit, a comparison I cannot begin to comprehend but somehow conveys my meaning. I was numb to my right ear and my right eye. I couldn’t blink it but I squinted periodically and out-of-sync with my other eye. In my head I imagined my eye rooming free, unmoored by a liter of novocaine. To someone looking at me I must have looked like that picture of Sarte--the one where his right eye is looking straight at you, but his left one is doing its best but just can’t help looking in a direction absolutely perpendicular to the picture plane. He was French so I bet there was some hot chick over there he wanted to tap but had to take a minute to have his picture snapped before he spit his existentialist game at her. If I could will my eyes to do that I would do it in every picture.

I would also spit existentialist game at every opportunity. I would tell the ladies, “It’s quantity, not quality.” I haven’t crunched the numbers, but when calculated as a function of quality, you’d have to fuck me an awful lot of times to make it worthwhile. I’m sure there’s a theoretical point at which the time investment renders the whole endeavor unethical from a Camusian perspective. Thankfully my girlfriend hasn’t read The Myth of Sisyphus. Apparently many other women before her did—I’m looking at you, Eva Mendes. Perpendicularly. But I digress.

So, before injecting the contents of Noriega’s evidence locker into my face, the doctor had to confirm the dentist’s diagnosis. This involved a series of ludicrous tests designed to amuse his friends at the New Year’s party.

He wanted to test the other teeth in the area to make sure they were okay, which required a chew test. I thought perhaps I would get to chew something tasty but it turned out to be cotton-flavored cotton. This was to confirm that I would be in horrible pain if I bit down hard on something with my bad tooth.

Then he said, now we’re going to try some cold air. I had to laugh, which is all you can do when kicked in the face by the absurd. What’s next, I wondered--ice?

At which point he did, in fact, find some ice--to test, he said, my cold sensitivity. This is when I formed the opinion that Gary Larson was right and the doctor was just putting things in my mouth because he could. And that I would probably believe even the most absurd justifications when they came out of a mouth affixed to a face sitting on a neck emerging from a smock.

The ice he used, I was told, was tetrafluoroethylene, a refrigerant also used to make teflon. I advised his assistant that I didn’t know about the tetra but I could taste the fluoro. And I could. It tasted like toothpaste. I asked the doctor why he couldn’t have given me some ice cream instead of giving me the stuff we use to keep it frozen. He did not respond in any way that a human responds to another human. I got the impression he was not interested in my suggestions and in general did not think I was terribly funny. This could be because I was still white-knuckle-clenching the armrests from when he stabbed my jaw with a needle once used by NASA to land men on the moon. I think it offended him.

The rest of it was no big deal. I’ve had cavities filled and I’m used to the drill, though I didn’t know that drills came in a variety of sizes and textures. They make a drill that hums. They make one that grinds. Another one buzzes. I can imagine dentists staying up very late at night drooling over the next drill bit they want to add to their collection. “This one drills wide, shallow holes. And this one smells like Hawaiian Punch when you use it!”

After a while I got bored by all the drilling and asked for some headphones, which they graciously supply to their patients. That was nice because I could hear the drilling from the inside instead of through the outside of my head, which was okay because my ear was so numb I’m not sure it was working properly anyway. Is it possible to hear perpendicularly?

And they put a giant piece of rubber around my tooth. The doctor called it a dental dam. He actually called it that. A dental dam. I foresaw a future in which prostitution and health care are both entitlements provided by the federal government. A technician sterilizes everything and everyone by coating them with prophylactics to prevent either an outbreak or a lawsuit or an orgasm. The rubber sheet was intended to isolate the tooth and keep it sterile. It’s a green sheet stretched over a yellow plastic rectangle, and it turns the area into a verdant patch that sprouts rotten teeth, like a garden in Hell.

The doc also stuck a bunch of metal rods into the tooth, which I think was to improve radio reception on my headphones and may have had some other purposes too. Maybe it delivered DirecTV to the condos in my mouth. On an x-ray snapped during the procedure my molar looked like a Transformer from that godawful Michael Bay flick--you know, all angles bent on no purpose.

Anyway, as I said, the rest of the procedure is very dull. After it was over I genuinely thanked the doctor and his assistant for putting up with me. Then I paid them. That’s usually how I get people to put up with me. It’s never on a volunteer basis.

It won’t surprise you to know that I am now at home. As of this writing, it’s been ninety minutes since I got out of the chair. The novocaine was injected four hours ago. I also had four injections of lidocaine during the procedure. When I touch my face, it feels like the marshmallow coating on the outside of a Hostess snowball. I haven’t looked in a mirror yet, so perhaps part of the treatment involved affixing shelf-stable pastry to my face as a punishment for that ice cream remark. I can only imagine what it would feel like if I’d seen a proctologist. In my mind I imagine Twinkie wrappers everywhere. I’m sure he would give me an acceptable-sounding reason for doing it, too. “That keeps the patient in a festive mood once the novocaine wears off and it starts to ache” or something like that. And I’m sure I would believe it.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Winter stinks

Seattle skyline as seen from the Bainbridge Island ferry.
Seattle skyline as seen from the Bainbridge Island ferry. [Photo Credit: shadowstorm]

The weather in Seattle has turned cold. I welcome this, for two reasons. The first reason I welcome this is because there is something wonderful about wintery weather—at least until New Years, anyway. I was not enthusiastic about Seattle’s especially Winter-like Spring this year, and I guess the Southern Californian in me couldn’t handle the short Summer that followed it. In spite of this, I welcome the onset of Winter. I enjoy the wool coats and woodsmoke in the evening. As wonderful as Summer days are, are Winter nights. And I sincerely believe that the downtown Seattle skyline shines more majestically once the mercury drops—and more majestic still once the holiday lights are hung.

I welcome the wintery weather for another reason. It gives me a chance to explore a mystery that I’ve pondered for at least the last 4 years.

If you fart in cold weather, does it make fog?

I feel like, if there was a definitive answer to this question, it would put a stop to things like people farting at bus stops on beautiful Winter mornings while I am waiting for the next bus.

This happened to me just two mornings ago, prompting this blog post. I was pacing, which is how I wile away the time when a bus is running late, and it’s too cold outside for me to keep my hands outside of my pockets long enough to read a book. I had been wearing quite the groove into the sidewalk when an older woman, wearing a heavy three-quarter length coat, showed up at the stop and stood, sentry-like, at the far end of my route.

She turned her back to me, as I pivoted round my other endpoint and began pacing off the distance between us. I had almost reached her when I heard them.

A few pops.

From under her coat.

I whipped around and reversed course in a desperate effort to avoid walking into what I imagined was a rapidly expanding mushroom fart-cloud.

But the universe was not about to let me escape my destiny! For, upon farting, she turned round and began chasing after me!

I was frightened that she would drag the fart towards me, and I became certain that I could see its vapor trail slithering after her caboose like the poltergeist of a meal forgot!

So, I increased my speed to stay ahead of her wake, and just like that, we were locked in a desperate struggle! Racing—to escape her gas!

And yes, I did win. She eventually hard-lefted and carried the stink into the bus shelter, making liars of the people who long ago gave it the name—“shelter.”

Of course, if Ingmar Bergman taught us anything, it’s that destiny can be postponed if you know how to play chess, and also that after you die, Death makes you hike all the way to the shore.

Now that I think about it, that's particularly unfair. If there’s any upside to dying, it’s that we can finally stop working out. Not so, apparently. It seems that Death has a whole VH1 celebrity boot camp laid out for us on a rocky beach somewhere in the Netherlands.

Sartre said that hell is other people. If he were alive today, I’m pretty sure he’d agree that it’s having to work out next to Dustin Diamond and Da Brat for eternity.

But I digress. As I was saying: you can postpone destiny, but not forever. And indeed, after mere moments, I resumed pacing and absent-mindedly traced a path back into the cooling embrace of her lingering filth-mist.

If only she had left a visible trail. I might have been able to save myself.

(Also, to answer the question I posed above, I did some research. In theory, you should be able to see farts in cold weather because they contain water vapor. Just like when you exhale in the cold, the low temperature causes the water vapor in your farts to condense into a mist. I guess clothing gets in the way, though, so sometimes you can, and sometimes you can’t. Either way, you shouldn’t fart at bus stops. That’s just cruel. Especially since you can’t count on the bus to smell any better, you should let people enjoy the fresh air while they can.)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

the pleasure principle


little. yellow. different. deadly in sufficient quantities. [photo credit: The Train!]

two days ago, a former staff member of the university where i teach-slash-study killed himself very violently and, worse, very, very publicly. i found this out from my students, who had all received text alerts from friends who had either witnessed it or saw it on the news. i received a text message from verizon telling me about all the minutes i hadn't used up, because i have no friends.

we all thought, at the time, that it had been a student who had died. later, we found out it was actually a 61 year old man, so we pretty much stopped caring after that.

it did make us wonder, though. why all the attention? dude was 61. but before we found that out, we had other questions. wasn't there anyone in this kid's life who could have stopped him? and was it an act of protest or a cry for help?

if i were to use suicide as a cry for help (and i had already ruled out actually crying for help), i would write a very long note in which i would complain bitterly about how expensive premium ice cream is and how i never learned to play "just like heaven" on the piano. then i would find a bottle of pills and empty its contents into the trash. finally, i would lay down and go to sleep, empty bottle in hand.

when one of my myspace or facebook friends found me (and i know they're my friends because i can keep track of their picture uploads and changes in status), i would tell them how i didn't want to be saved, and how if they really cared about me they would get me some ben and jerry's phish phood.

when i got to the hospital, the tox screens would come back clean, and the doctor would ask me if i had overdosed on anything, and i would answer, malaise, because i am a grad student in an english department and whoever is the malaisiest wins. in this way, graduate students in english departments are very much like the members of high school drama clubs. if i did it all wearing vampire fangs i would probably be enshrined in high school cafetoriums across the country.

now, i wouldn't actually take the pills. i mean, you'd have to be someone who felt utterly alone, someone in utter desperation, to do a thing like that. in the age of social networking and internet dating, that's just not possible.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

it's nap time for kitty.
happy kitty, sleepy kitty, purr purr purr. [photo credit: Greymouser]

In a dream last night, I was hanging out with a good friend—someone I’ve known since grade school—and there’s a group of random people there as well, people whom I’ve never met. In the dream, I say:
I saw the strangest thing in the paper, there were these ratings. And the ratings were, “murder,” +1, and then some movie, +5. And I thought, first, that’s odd that you’re reviewing a murder. But also, is that really fair? Did anyone really see the murder?
At which point, a big laugh ensures. Feel free to laugh at home if you desire. Laughs occur in odd places in my dreams. They occur in odd places in my waking life as well. Seldom where I intend them, as many of my students would not attest to since they were the ones not laughing in the places where I intended laughter to, as they say, ensue.

In the dream, my friend says to the group of random strangers: “He’s not very funny when he’s working, but if you talk to him outside of school—like one time, he said to me, ‘when I’m a university professor, I’m going to live in the university district—it’s like a red herring. Nobody will expect it.’”

It’s not just that the creative process continues while we sleep that astounds me, it’s the complexity of what results from that process—that the brain can produce intricate narratives, solve complicated problems, or, in my case, write new material (some of it’s even funny).

The other thing that astounds me is that, even in my dreams, my friends have to explain to strangers that I am funny.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tales of a Whipped Boyfriend

"I need to get into the case--I need to get some razor blades."
"What'll it be? Mach 3s?"
"Umm--Venus Breeze."


"It's okay. It's o-kay."