My Million-dollar..uh... Two-thousand-dollar Smile

They call it medicated air now. Years ago, when I started going to the dentist for serious work, it was called nitrous ("Do you want some nitrous?" "No, it gives me gas."). For many years before that they called it laughing gas. Now it's just "medicated air." Well, no matter what euphemism the dentist office uses, it's still my crutch, and the only way on God's green earth that you're going to get me into that chair.

The tooth which I broke off recently while chewing on a Life Saver is now in the process of being cored, plugged, molded and crowned. It's all a really crude and barbaric procedure, but - at the same time - very interesting. The repair of the alleged tooth is a three-stage affair, concluding with a new crown seated nicely atop a metal plug jammed up in my tooth where the root used to be.

You should know right up front that my chart says "Big Baby" at the top. I need lots of novacaine and even more nitrous. Once they put that nose mask on me, I'm in deep-breathing mode. I suck that stuff in, because I don't want to be there, physically or mentally. So I embrace the gas with a passion and go for a stroll in la-la land while the doctor and his assistant build a miniature playground in my mouth. After lying in the chair breathing in the nitrous for a couple of minutes, my lips and feet begin to tingle, and I no longer care what they do to me. They could drag me naked through the snow and I wouldn't care. For all I know, they have.

This time I tried to maintain a thread of connectivity with reality, but I failed. I was thinking it would be really insightful if you could write about your experience at the dentist while it's happening, but decided it would be too difficult. A laptop computer would get in the way, and you can't dictate. Only dentists and their assistants can understand what a person with a mouthful of cotton, metal appliances and deadened lips and tongue is saying. I think they take a foreign language course in college to become fluent in drool-speak. In addition to having to talk around a mouthful of foreign objects, I have a tendency to say odd things and experience strange introspective visions while under the influence of "medicated air." I remember my first experience with it.

In addition to all the hardware hanging out of my mouth and over my nose, I had a rubber dam stretched across my mouth. The only reason I can come up with for stretching one of those things across my gaping maw is to keep from losing drill bits and pokey tools down my throat. While lying there I had a mental image of a gagging frog. Just like mine, its mouth was wide open and filled with water, and it was gagging because it couldn't swallow. That's the only thing I remember about the experience. A gagging frog. Pretty deep and insightful, huh?

One other time I was mooing while under the influence of the nitrous. There was a story on the radio about a cow getting loose somewhere and ending up in a bank lobby after crashing through a plate-glass window. The story struck me as being incredibly humorous, but with a mouthful of tools and appliances, the only response I could come up with was to moo. The dentist asked what I was listening to, and I said there was a story about a cow on the radio. He shook his head and resumed finding a route to China through my mouth. I went back to la-la land.

I tried to pay attention to the radio this time and keep track of time and maintain a connection to the real world, but I couldn't do it. Songs blend together into one long medley, and the commercials somehow become integrated into the medley. I do remember hearing a snippet of the song "I'll Give You A Daisy a Day" by Judd Strunk and wondering if my assistant was still sitting next to me, manning the rinse and suction hoses.

Before the dentist came in and all the fun started, she was draping me with a drool blanket. We heard the same snippet of music on the radio and she hurriedly excused herself to go call the radio station. You see, every time you hear the little piece of the song, you call in. The first caller wins a free daisy plant from Reed Drug, a little breath of spring during this late winter time of year. So when the station played the snippet of song while I was being worked on, I wondered if she was still there. But my eyes were too heavy to open, and I was too comfortable in that fuzzy cocoon the gas had spun around me to worry about it.

That's what the gas does for you. It makes you feel that nothing matters. You still hear the drill, and, personally, I think you actually still feel the pain, but you can't react to it, and you just don't care anymore. The doctor would probably say that's not true - about still feeling the pain - but I think it is. I think you just can't do anything about it. You react as though your lying in a vat of molasses, unable to make any fast movements. And if I was a dentist, that's just the way I'd want it. If I was working in someone's mouth and drilling and poking and sanding and probing with sharp nut picks, I wouldn't want them to be able to move quickly.

They brought me up for air once, and asked if I was OK. I said "Sure. Never better!" At least that's what I tried to say. What I really said was "Szhoo! Maffah ballah!" They laughed and let me drift off again. I was able to make a mental note that they were using my chest for a tray for all their tools. The dentist would work at my tooth for a bit, then drop that tool on my chest and pick up a different one. But when they were done and brought me back to reality, I didn't have any tools on my chest anymore.

Call me paranoid, but I think they have a grand old time while I'm lying there helpless. As I said before, they could drag me through the snow naked and I wouldn't care. It would explain the scratches and scrapes on my behind, though.


©1997 Mike Zimmerli

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Jaws of Life

A bright light was shining in my face when I opened my eyes. I flexed my fingers and toes. I could still feel my extremities, and they all still answered my mental commands. That was a good sign. I swung my legs over to the side and stood up. Stretching for a moment, I tried to give the illusion of someone just waking up from a peaceful sleep instead of someone trying to gain control of his equilibrium. I really should have felt as though I just woke up from a nap, though. I had just snoozed away the better part of two hours in the dentist's chair, complete with snoring.

It had been two weeks since my last visit. The metal plug had been fashioned from the plastic mold Dr. Lampi had made last time. This time they would stick the metal plug in and make the mold for the crown. Step one today would be to lower the "nosepiece of tranquility" into place so I would be more receptive to the changes ahead. Gas makes you malleable. It's like you're hypnotized. They just give you simple, easy-to-follow instructions and you do them without question. Open wider. Bite down. Don't bite down. Hold this in your mouth. Don't swallow for 8 minutes. Sometimes the dentist makes statements punctuated with my name. Things like: this isn't going to taste good, Mike; this smells pretty strong, Mike.

Did you know the glue they use smells just like the stuff the auto body guys use when they glue stuff together? Poly-resin stuff. As a matter of fact, I think Dr. Lampi buys his stuff the same place Maki Auto Body does. He just uses it in smaller quantities. I wonder how many other things are not nearly as technical or fancy as we think? I remember him taking my plug downstairs to do some trimming. At the time I pictured a small, sterile techno-lab. Now I wonder if he just has a regular workbench and a little Dremel tool down there. For several hours after I left the dentist's office I felt like I had a paint factory in my mouth. My wife came home from work and asked if I had been eating shellac. I think that's another reason they don't mind if I take a nap: that way I won't see that the things they use are also common to the auto repair industry. I opened my eyes once, and I swear I saw a can that said Bondo. I'm sure I'm just a bit paranoid, but it doesn't help to know that Dr. Lampi owns and restores old cars.

I obviously struck a chord in people with my first piece on going to the dentist. I knew many people are uncomfortable going to the dentist, but it seems like everyone has a horror story to tell.

Tom Moore, an e-mail friend from Akron, Ohio, wrote me after my first dental piece, and like many people, felt compelled to provide his own happy experience. Here's what he wrote...

"You really got to the 'root' of things with your dentist piece. I can relate, all too well. When I was in the Air Force, a sadist dentist got hold of me. His nurse held my hands while he put his knee on my chest and yanked. I was in bed for 48 hours, bleeding like a stuck pig. And the flight chief, unwilling to take me to sick call, kept running to the mess hall for ice. So I avoided dentists for the next 40 plus years, going only when the pain got so bad I had to. Like you, I, too, had to be cold to the world.

Popeye, Olive and Bluto/Brutus are registered cartoon characters. All rights reserved, etc.

"So, you can imagine my predicament when I came up to retirement four years ago with a mouthful of bad teeth and gums to match. I had to do something since my dental insurance ceased to exist when I walked out the door of the Beacon Journal.

"I took the bit between my teeth, offered several prayers, and went to a dentist. I had two months before the insurance ran out. The dentist sent me to a periodontist who sent me to a surgeon to have 5 teeth pulled. Nervous and sweating and almost wetting my pants, I sat down in the surgeon's chair. The needle went into the arm and when I awoke, it was over. I had felt nothing.

"To make a long story short, I have never met a more concerned, helpful, friendly bunch as I went through the process, including surgery on my gums and a filling or two. There was discomfort, but no pain! They've sure come a long way in the dental profession. Now I go every three months for a checkup and cleaning. But I have to admit, I still get nervous."

Nearly everyone who wrote to me after this article appeared said "Ask me about MY experience sometime!" Tom was the only one brave enough to send it along. Anyone else in the class care to contribute?

Epilogue: Two weeks after getting the metal plug , I went back and got the crown put on. Now I have a tooth again. For the past six weeks I have been chewing cookies with front teeth only, and avoiding crunchy peanut butter. I think tonight I'll have a bag of popcorn. Wish me luck.

Up next in the dental department: a couple of fillings and some temporary stuff. Yeah, right. "Temporary." I have a temporary cap on a front tooth from 1982. But I can't hide anymore. My dentist knows my e-mail address!


©1997 Mike Zimmerli

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Guilty As Charged

   I feel guilty. I am harboring a selfish feeling of relief. Part of me aches with a shared sense of loss, but deep down, hidden away, is a feeling of deliverance, of escape. It is the auto-response of a parent upon hearing of a tragedy involving someone else's child.
   "Thank goodness it wasn't one of my children."

   Unbidden, the words came instantly to mind upon hearing the news. I feel guilty for having those words rattling around inside when someone else is going through a devastating loss, but I can't help it. As parents, we are forced to relinquish the reins on our children as they grow, and to allow them to make judgement calls. They don't always choose the way we would like. We have to hope they have been listening as we have been teaching. They often don't understand how deeply we care, and that we feel the consequences of their actions as strongly or stronger than they do.

   The call came early in the evening on the Fourth of July. One of my son's friends was on the phone. I was outside making my daily visit to the garden to see how things were growing. The tomatoes have a bit of the blight they always get when we have a wet summer, but the potatoes were doing well, and the green beans had really flourished with the rains of the past week. To my twelve-year-old daughter's dismay it looks like it's going to be a bumper crop of raspberries for her to pick.

   My wife came out and told me that Adam was talking very quietly on the phone and she was fairly certain something bad had happened to one of his friends. We went over and sat down on the backstep. A moment later he appeared at the door, looking stunned, eyes shiny with tears.

   "That was Steve. B-J is dead. He drowned this afternoon."

   How many times have we warned Adam to be careful when he's with his friends down by the river. How many times has he nonchalantly let our words slide off his back with a quick "Uh-huh." How many times has he gone ahead and done the thing we had told him not to, simply because he couldn't see any danger through his sixteen-year-old eyes? It never occurred to him that we had any reason for our wishes other than to deny him some fun. He could never understand our resistance to certain plans and ideas he had. He thought, as we all did when we were sixteen, that he was indestructible.

   And now B-J is forever sixteen.

   I feel my son's loss very deeply, and am extremely proud of the way he shouldered the responsibility of letting B-J's other friends know what happened. He could have pulled inside his teenage shell and wallowed in his pain. He could have refused the task, saying it was too hard. But he accepted it without a backwards glance and handled the job better than many adults could.

   Bryan J. Karjala Jr. was a nice young man. He shared some likes and dislikes with our son. They read many of the same books. They both liked computers and computer games. They both were intelligent, good looking young men who needed to apply themselves in school, but often chose not to. We never saw B-J much at our house. He only came over to our house a few times, and then he and Adam would go and meet their friends somewhere else. Usually Adam went to his house, or they met on neutral ground. We heard his name quite a bit, especially during the school year, but we never really got to know him. Then, after the first semester of this past school year, B-J moved to another town, about twenty miles away. We didn't hear much from Adam about B-J the rest of their their sophomore year, since he wasn't in the same school anymore, and he wasn't within bike riding distance. This is the summer when many of the boys are getting their driver's licenses. Some of the barriers thrown up by distance would have eroded away with that piece of paper in hand, but for now, B-J was mostly "out of sight, out of mind." Until the Fourth of July, that is, when he came bursting back into the lives of all his old friends.

   I remember hearing that a former classmate of mine, Dwight Erickson, had died in a car accident during our senior year. I had moved away, not him. Actually, I hadn't seen much of anyone from my old class, kids I had been with since kindergarten. We had moved forty miles away just before my senior year, and seniors are usually too busy being forced to look ahead to look backward. I wonder if my parents had the same thought as I did. "Thank goodness it wasn't one of our sons." If they felt it, they never articulated it. If they felt it, I wonder if they felt guilty for feeling it.

   I am very proud of my son. This has been a growing summer for him. He has his first job, and we have seen him mature on a daily basis. He works at the Judy Garland Children's Museum, selling in the gift shop, taking tickets and making sure everyone has a good time. Many things we have told him in the last several years suddenly seem to have fallen into place. (Surprise for us: he was actually listening!) Things we told him he should know "just in case." Responsibilty. Work Ethic. Old fashioned values we feel have not gone out of style. How to count back change the proper way. Finding out the answer to a customer's question even though it's quitting time or it's not your department. A willingness to see the job through, and to make sure it's done the right way the first time. I hope he is able to hold onto these newly-learned lessons and apply them to the next couple of years of high school and beyond. He is turning into such a fine, handsome young man, and my chest swells with pride when people tell me what a good job he is doing. I finally get to see some fruit for my labors all these years.

   He told my wife he suddenly can see a practical application for some aspects of his education where before he saw no reason to pay attention. He said he should have paid more attention in health class when they were doing CPR. He sees where some math can come in handy for running a business (but not geometry!).

   Maybe he'll believe me now when I try to tell him there are some things he won't understand until he is a parent. Things like feeling the pain of a loss mixed with the joy of still having your own child, safe and healthy. And not feeling ashamed for feeling that way.


Copyright ©1997 Mike Zimmerli

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Backward Glances

   As old man 1997 shuffles slowly for the exit door, we have a few moments to pause and reflect on the past year. At least we should, but the new kid, 1998, is raring to come blasting in, and establish his/her dominance. Even our metaphors and euphemisms have switched to a faster speed. When did life become so fast? Perhaps the real question is when did I become so slow? It seems as though this past year was a big one for changes.

   Changes in attitudes, changes in careers, changes in mind and body. All these things marked 1997. So, before 1998 takes center stage and hogs the limelight, I'll just take a few moments and sift through the past year's clutter, starting with a look at family.

   I have an awful lot to be thankful for. My wife of seventeen years gets more lovely each day, and I feel more complete each day I spend with her. She truly is my one and only, made specially for me. I look forward to growing older with her and discovering new horizons and new opportunities when our primary child-raising years are passed. We will both still be young when we become unfettered.

   My children are not into drugs, gangs, violence, body piercing or any of the other things most middle-aged to (Careful! The phrase you use may someday apply to you!) upper-middle-aged Midwesterners frown on and wish kids these days weren't so enamored with. My children are, in my humble opinion, both above average, imbued with good sense, good morals, good manners, a sense of independence with an understanding of the importance of family, and filled with potential. They can never know how proud I am of them, but if they are blessed with children like mine, they will have a chance to experience this same pride.

   I don't know if it had anything to do with achieving the forty-year milepost, but I seem to have a number of changes in my life this past year, not the least of which is a change in careers. Now that was a scary proposition!

   For regular readers and friends, this is old news, but I'll recap for those just stumbling across this for the first time, and for all my regular readers and friends who suffer from CRS (Can't Remember Stuff).

   I turned forty in January without a lot of hullabaloo, which was fine with me, never having been forty before and not knowing what to expect. I'm the kind who likes to try on a suit before wearing it in public for the first time, and thought I'd like to slip forty on and see how comfortable it felt before buying it. Now with forty-one staring me in the face, I guess I'll have to buy the whole forty-something outfit, two pair of pants and all.

   First change: February 15, 1997 at 11:30 a.m. I quit smoking, ending a twenty-year habit. For those curious folk among you: no patch, no gum, no cheating and bumming drags from friends and co-workers. I haven't had so much as a single puff since I put out the last one nearly a year ago.

   Change number "B" was deciding to try and get my chronic weight problem under control. I quit smoking, why not fix another potential health situation? As with smoking, I decided that I simply can't eat the way I have grown accustomed to over the years. I'll probably always have to watch what I eat if I want to reduce to a healthy weight and maintain it. Luckily for me, I have a partner who likes to eat healthy (my skinny wife!). We knew this would have to be a lifestyle change, not just a temporary fix. I lost nearly twenty pounds by Thanksgiving, then hit the wall. I couldn't get the scale to dip any lower, winter was settling in and my body went into feed-up-and-store-up mode, the holidays came along and I gained five pounds back. But as the holidays fade into fuzzy, fat memories, I can get back to following the dietary regimen which had been successful for me.

   The third big change for the year was switching careers after nearly twenty years on the radio. My stress level was skyhigh, and I no longer enjoyed enough parts of the job to continue. When I had a chance to jump ship, I took it.

   I now work at a screen-printing and embroidery shop, handling the main embroidery duties and doing graphic design. I also still do web work on the side, though my new schedule doesn't allow for nearly as much time for web work as my old schedule did. People tell me they miss hearing me on the radio, and ask if I miss being there. I do miss being around the creative people who work in that genre, people who are constantly "on," funny, witty and sharing the same love/hate relationship with the biz that you are.

   However, radio is an evil mistress, a business that eats its young. Unless you are in a larger market, you will be poor, you will be overworked, and you will not be appreciated except by your listeners, and they don't pay your salary or determine your working environment.

   All in all, it is not a good place to raise a family or try and maintain good self-esteem. There should be a twelve-step program for recovering dj's like me.

   How much blame for these changes in attitudes can be marked up to turning forty-years-old? I would like to think none, since I don't consider forty to be any magic number in the human scale. It's only one more part of the total package. Enough about me.

   My parents are in good health, both in their seventies, now. No surprise, but they still are role models: together what a good marriage is about, and separately what good, normal adults are like. I am glad my children have them around to emulate.

   Adam, our son, is turning into a fine young man. He is beginning to grasp how large the world is, and how small our corner of it is. There is so much to see, and so little time to see all of it and do all that we would like to do. Bittersweet, since he is also discovering that you can't walk away from responsibilities. They have a habit of riding along no matter how you try to ignore them. Luckily, he is also discovering that the weight of responsibility is less when you carry it on your shoulders instead of having it hang on to your back as you attempt to walk away from it.

   Becca is going to be a lovely young woman, and is really beginning to shed her swan's down. This past year she has found her stride in school, and we have seen signs of inner strength and confidence that will carry her far in life. The most exciting thing for me to see is her compassion and creativity coupled with that strength and confidence. To see the questing for truth in her eyes. In a world so gray with indifference, she is a ray of sunlight.

   And my Grandma Zimmy is still with us, having turned 99 this past fall. She has begun to fail, though, and I wonder if she will see the seasons change for the 100th time. She and I said our good-byes a few years ago. I think she knew the time was coming when she would begin to lose the battle, and she wanted to say good-bye while she still had all her memories gathered near her like children.

   So as 1997 heads for retirement, I wonder how much it put away in a 401k, and if it will straighten its shoulders and lift its head and do a little jig once the door is closed behind it, or if it will long for the spotlight. I'll let you know.


Copyright 1998 Mike Zimmerli All Rights Reserved

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