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by Jeff Steinbrink

Not for nothing did the Nazis use dental pain as a form of torture

You're laid out in the dentist's chair like the catch of the day, the dentist himself poised over you like a mantis. Only the dutiful, sober part of you wants to be here — the good son, the sturdy citizen — but even then “wants” isn't the right word. You're thinking this feels wrong in so many perfectly childish, perfectly legitimate ways.

It can hurt, for one thing. It has hurt, sometimes, and when it hurts it does so in its own special way. Not for nothing did the Nazis use dental pain as a form of torture. Your teeth seem to be hard-wired to that part of your brain that does nothing but wait for high, sharp, invasive, exquisite jolts of agony from its immediate south. The dentist can send the point of a whirring drill or of one of his Nazi-ish picks into the dark secret heart of your tooth. You will be struck from the inside by a lightning-bolt of pain that will bring every one of your sensory organs to full attention. You will be bathed in that lightning until the dentist relents, and then you will slump into a consciousness that will do anything to avoid another strike. But (here's the worst part) you must sit/lie there and allow the dentist again and again to send the whirring drill back into that very heart of darkness. And again.

Which is to say you are helpless. Oh, you could shove the dentist aside and scramble from the chair, as your primitive self has been urging. Your dog would do this, as would your panda, your monkey, or your dolphin. They must be rendered unconscious before dentistry can claim them. But not you. The creature at the top of the food chain knows he needs his teeth long-term, and so he will discipline himself to bear short-term pain and even remain alert (and inert) as he experiences it. This means that the helplessness that bewilders and infuriates you while you are in the dentist's hands and at his mercy is largely of your own making. You are a grownup.  You are all about mind over matter. You are really, really bothered by that burning-enamel smell.

But if it's your status as a Higher Animal that keeps you in that chair, your wonderfully evolved mind willing your teeth not to clench and your body to mimic ease, it is exactly that status that will make your time there as grueling to your psyche as the Nazi-ish picks are to your dendrites. For few things make clearer than a dental procedure that you are meat and bone. You may momentarily feel like an astronaut as the dentist eases you supine, but once you're there, you're just a wet jar full of teeth. The vanity that may have allowed you only moments earlier to imagine yourself the crown of creation slips away, as if forever. Your politics, your elegant principles, your tastes, your expensively-arrived-at sensibilities will do you no good. Your having been Bat-Mitzvahed, your fluency in Urdu, your beer-can collection, your old-boy-network are for nothing. You'd be better off with no sensibilities at all, a car with its hood open. You close your eyes. There is an awful whirring, the smell of burning enamel.

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Articles in this Issue

Balance, by Scott McCredie
Repair History, by Edward Hardy
Princesses and Jacks, by Peter Allison
Queens of the Thirties, by Stephen L. Meyers
Lost Balls, by Charles Lindsay
Medicine, by Nesta Rovina
Dentistry, by Jeff Steinbrink
Stuntology, by Sam Bartlett
April 2008


Jeff Steinbrink teaches American Lit and Creative Writing at Franklin & Marshall College. His commentaries can be heard on public radio's Marketplace.

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