Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Craft of the Gum

I am afraid of dentists. While it's not a particularly original phobia it is a phobia with repercussions like a snare drum's vibrating crash when it falls out the van of some tanked musicians wearing T-shirts and jeans cleaned the year before they were asked to leave high school. (To their credit the musicians got their GEDs; but they do lug that snare drum from garage to garage.)

The sound of repercussions? Jarring and painful. I have yet to warm up to shiny exquisitely sharpened metal implements of silver tones, near, on, or boring into my tender gums, themselves small and shiny though wet and of a pinkish hue.

Through a serendipity which is part of a recent and larger massing of good will on behalf of the universe toward me, I found a dentist I could bear. A periodontist. I scrambled to my insurance website the week after I was laid off and made use of the dentist finder device.

"How did you find me?" Dr. Hecht asked. He has been practicing for many years, and probably in the same inauspicious office on the first floor of an apartment building - a New York City phenomenon, as far as I know (small medical offices that aren't part of snazzy professional complexes).

"You're in my zip code." I mentioned my dental squirminess.

He was calm and genuinely interested in gums, gum pockets and all that. If all we poets were as dedicated to our craft as he is to his, poetry could be a whole different thing neither better nor worse but different.

Hecht did, however, use small shiny sharp instruments, some motorized. I saw him Tuesday - second time - for surgery. He had that morbid perspective of dental aficionados. He thinks it's a hoot.

"Usually the X-rays make it look worse," the dentist said to his nurse Marianna. "Look at this stuff [I'm taking out]!"

Her nonsequitor was a reference to a failed X-ray of his teeth: "Ees my fault if your cheeks they are lined with lead?" Marianna is Russian.

My arms were tightly crossed on my chest, as I gripped and pinched myself in fear and tried to remember where Dr. Hecht matriculated. Was it the Sir Lawrence Olivier Royal Academy of Periodontal Surgery? Pinch pinch. Was he going to ask, "Is it safe?" Would the anesthetic take effect in time?

Marianna saw me white knuckling. "I am havink the mark on the arm myself. Pinchink. Donn like the surgery, me neither." Marianna reached behind her. "So." She handed me a stuffed brown bear usually offered to younger patients. I squeezed. "Ees helpink, yes?" Yes.

Hecht suspects a poppy seed infiltrated a pocket, as periodontists call fissures in the gum. I was infected and ready to abscess. Hallelujah - I didn't.

When he was troweling over new "bone" replacing gunky old bone dissolved by infection he mentioned a cousin of his who had cosmetic surgery on her chin. This was in the late 1940s. I believe his curiosity centered on the composition of the new "bone." Somewhere along the line he and Marianna veered from talking about real bone (not favored by patients because it's kinda creepy) versus fake bone; silicone (which led to the reflections on his cousin's chin); and just how much putty she should mix up to cover my stitches.

He complained she made too much and when it proved she had estimated correctly he told her that was because he was right all along.

I kind of forget where I was headed with all this although I hoped I would find a poetry tie-in along the way. Well, there was that comment of mine about poets (some) versus workmanlike professionals (some). I end with a moment of sympathy for Dustin Hoffman, who didn't know what Olivier meant when he asked "Is it safe?" - held up that whirring drill - gave dentists such a bad name.

photo from Marathon Man, starring Sir Lawrence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman.

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