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The Sunny Side of a Visit to the Dentist (-ed.)

November 6, 1946

Hey, I’ve got one of those things it’s handy to have around to kid yourself into thinking that things aren’t as bad as they are. This is a reflection to be kept in the attic of the mind and to be hauled out and examined only on bad days. When you’re so low you need an escalator to climb up onto the living room rug.

I spent thirty minutes in a dentist’s chair yesterday so, of course, you really have to make allowances for anything I may have to say. But I think this will hold up even on a non-dental appointment day. I am not what you could call an ardent fan of dentists. I like them well enough as people but when they come at me armed with the claw of an explorer or reach over to the long elbow of the drill machine and put a foot on the treadle, I can think of a few places I would rather be. It helps some to get to his office a little early. Of course you can do that even by being thirty or forty minutes late for your appointment. Because no matter when you arrive there are four patients looking bleak and condemned sitting there staring vacantly at a middle-aged copy of the Saturday Evening Post. It does you no good to haul out your appointment card and glance at it significantly when the hygienist assistant comes in to look you over. You may be down on the books officially for two thirty and it is now two twenty nine and there are four ahead of you . . . but that’s the way it is. In a way this works to your advantage. That’s what meant by suggesting that it’s a good thing to arrive early if possible. It gives you time to pick up a copy of the Reader’s Digest issue of September,1938 and absorb its contents . . . so stale that it numbs you with drowse. If all the 1938 magazines are spoken for, you are still not stymied. You can divert yourself with a handsomely bound copy of the Dental Association Bulletin vintage, Fall of 1936. There are Technicolor photographs and solid unblinking text given over to the fascinating story of the life and times of an upper right bicuspid and others I have known. The effect of this varied reading matter is sufficiently narcotic to take the edge off your senses. Does you good. By the time you are ushered in to the presence, you are more than half asleep and therefore much less disposed to cry out in terror when the man in the white robe reaches for the drill.

Some day, I think we should pause and consider the whole subject of the anteroom attached to the dental office. Or maybe this should be the day for it. If we don’t get off into this, it will only mean running off into some of the sidelights of Election Day and there’ll be enough of that around. All right then . . . there are one or two observations I should like to unburden. I want to know, for example, why it is deemed necessary to keep the anteroom shrouded in tomblike silence. It is so quiet that when one of the waiting victims turns a page in an ancient copy of a magazine, it sounds like an atom bomb clearing its throat. I think the radio should be turned on at all times in a dental anteroom. When there is nothing but silence you can’t help straining to hear what is going on within and you find yourself tensed for the cry of anguish when the prober reaches the nerve. It’s no good expecting the patients to spark conversation. For one thing, any person of sensibility who is waiting his turn to be operated on is in no mood to make bright small talk. Fortunately it is an unwritten code that people waiting in the dentist’s office shall not even look at each other. If they should become friendly it could lead to only one climax. The conversation would promptly be reduced to competitive comparison of symptoms. “The last time I was here . . . Dr. Buffington had to carve out an impacted wisdom tooth.” “Oh that’s nothing . . . you see this darkened molar? Hway ack har . . . (with fingers in mouth) has to come out. The doctor says it’s the toughest extraction he’s ever been faced with. Yessor. Some baby that molar . . . gets me right in the back of the neck every time I eat ice cream.” That kind of conversation gets people nowhere and it’s as it should be that the fraternity of imminent victims maintains a frigid reserve. But I wish something could be done to liven things up a bit and spike the gloom of waiting with a dimple of sound and cheer.

Another unanswered question is this: And this applies generally to all professional waiting rooms. What gives the practitioner the idea that his clients are interested in the academic literature of his profession? In the Osteopath’s waiting room you will find the carefully recorded minutes of the meetings of the Lower Pennsylvania Osteopathic Association . . . neatly bound volume four . . . 1937 through ‘40. It is not light reading. At any other time perhaps you might be interested in the remarks of the second honorary Vice President of the Phoenixville Chapter on the peculiar affinity between the floating rib and the seventh vertebra counting down from the top. I’m sure it is a most worthy note that the West Virginia Dental Association voted unanimously to adopt Resolution 13 A. But it is not the sort of breezy fiction a fellow needs when he is trying to forget the jumping pain just under his left eye. I think the doctors put that stuff about to be impressive. They themselves probably never find time to read the bounded minutes of the association meetings. But they are obliged to subscribe to them and they feel that their presence in the waiting room gives assurance to the apprehensive patient that they are on their toes . . . keeping up with the latest thought and progressive ideas in the field. Something in it, I suppose. But that’s no excuse for boxing you in with your election in reading matter limited to an exciting copy of Dental Age or a 1926 edition of the Literary Digest. Even if you have a curiosity so limber that you can enjoy an engaging chemical analysis of a dark blue mouthwash you are no better off. Anterooms are always dimly lighted. There are possibly two lamps giving their Mazdic* all. If you are directly under one of them you’re in good shape except that each lamp is built to accommodate two bulbs . . . one of which has long since resigned in black despair. If you are not under one of the lamps, you are in almost total darkness and if you had thought of it you might have brought along some developing fluid and could have diverted yourself by immersing some film.

However, there is something to be said for the failing light of the anteroom. If it were any brighter you would find yourself staring in fascinated horror at the framed pieces on the wall. Mural decoration in the dental office follows one of three schools of thought. Some professional men go in for those comic prints. You know . . . the ones which show people in about the period of a Dickens novel writhing in torture while some ill-kempt fellow, who is the cartoon of the old time dentist, reaches in with a great pair of pliers to extract a painful tooth. This is supposed to be very funny, for some reason. It never strikes me as funny. Not when I have a tooth ache. And if I didn’t have a tooth ache, what would I be doing in the dentist’s waiting room? I believe the dentist who affects that type of preference in displayed graphic art does so (a) because he wants you to know he has a sense of humor and can go along with a gag even when the laugh is on his craft and (b) to dramatize what a huge joke it is that dentists used to be so crude in their practice. The implication being that today the dentist is so gentle he doesn’t hurt you at all. I wish they could think of other avenues of testimony.

Other dentists shun the crude cartoons and give you still art. Or rather what I usually think of as static art. I don’t mind seeing a plant or a bowl of fruit just sitting there, but it distresses me to see a dog just standing there. Or a hunter, gay in his red coat, in the act of negotiating a hurdle . . . but frozen for all time on the print in an attitude of uncertain hover. You can look at a horse making the jump just so long . . . after that you begin to wish he’d get it over with. The third school of artistic thought scorns pictures and cartoons and sticks to the straight no-funny-business motif of diplomas. Handsomely framed for all to see is the parchment attesting to Ronald J. Buffington’s meritorious completion of the proscribed course for undergraduates. I may be doing the man an injustice. There may be something implicit in the law requiring that all practicing dentists visibly display their credentials. I don’t blame him. I just say that time spent staring at a framed diploma is not my idea of a large afternoon. I don’t understand the long Latin words and I actively challenge the sharply personal note struck in all diplomas. You don’t get the idea at all that Ronald Buffington attended the University of Pennsylvania as one of a body of seventeen thousand students. The diploma makes it appear that he was the only student on the campus. His name is spelled out so prominently and in such carefully appointed Old English type that you get a picture of the proctor and the dean of men and the provost marshal or whosoever names are signed to the thing, rushed down and clapped him on the back and said, “Nice going Ronnie old boy . . . you made it!” The truth of the matter is that the permanent Executive Secretary of the Alumni Association, whose signature is inscribed with fervent flourish, probably never knew that Buffington went through the school. He didn’t know anyone but the half back who made All American. But that’s the way it is with diplomas. They are so impressive and exulting and superlative and pointedly personal that you have the feeling the whole academic world dropped everything to congratulate young Buffington and wished him well and herby signed affidavits attesting to his fitness to pull your tooth.

Now . . . I will get back to that thought which struck me on my visit to the dentist yesterday and which I think is a pretty good thing to have around when you need to be perked up. At one point in the proceedings, Dr. Buffington withdrew to an inner sanctum where he performs his miracles of alchemy and left me alone with the bib tucked up around my chin. Well, what can a fellow do alone and completely surrounded by gleaming weapons? There is nothing to do but inspect some of those within reach. I picked up what apparently serves as a magnifying reflector. I took one look and recoiled. Have you ever looked into a mirror that magnifies? It’s a pretty harrowing experience. All the otherwise invisible imperfections in your skin are instantly multiplied. The bristle of your beard stands out individually like oak trees. If you hold it up to your eye . . . it stares balefully back at you with such distorted largeness that you wonder you don’t frighten people along the street. As an additional starter I have a nose which requires no magnification of any kind. It is a formidable thing even viewed at a distance through squinted lids by a confirmed astigmatic. But in front of a magnifying mirror it is a thing of such ignoble proportions that you begin to thinking wistfully of plastic surgery. I know of course that magnifying mirrors are used by women for devious cosmetic purpose. It is just one further tribute to the great courage of the female. I once had a shaving mirror . . . one of those that come complete with a built-in light. It is a reversible affair with plain reflection on one side and a magnifying surface on the other. Needless to say I had the magnifier permanently blacked out. These things can do something to you.

Now then, my thought for the day is this: when things are going against you, on one of those days when you drop a dish or cigar ashes on the rug. When the mail brings nothing but bills and every outgoing telephone call nets a busy signal . . . cheer yourself with this thought: Isn’t it a good thing that the human eye is not equipped with a magnifying lens? Aren’t you glad that people don’t see you as the dentists’ reflector sees you? Does this sound pollyannic? I hope not. I know it’s pretty hard to be content with your lot because it is a lot more than someone else has. That doesn’t always work. But I do think that one of the most direct lessons in humility is to look at yourself in a magnifying mirror. And then, when you are properly humble, reflect on how good it is that other people don’t see you that way. If you wanted to be really preachery about it (which I know you don’t) you might go on from there to observe that it is a caution not to turn the magnifying lens of your critical faculties on some of your friends. Don’t examine too sharply into their foibles. Because you know how YOU would feel under the lens yourself. Do I make a point there? I’ll bet when I started out to say that I had picked something up at the dentist’s office that would be handy to have around for cheer on a gray day . . . you thought it was just to remind yourself how good it is on days when you don’t have to go to the dentist. Well, there’s that too. But better than that is the thought that the magnifying lens is used only to explore your gum line and not built into the human eye.

That’ll be all from Alan Scott.

* A little explanation of Mazdic Lighting from Wikipedia:

And here’s the real thing: