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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Advice from the Seven Dwarves


Keeping your Nose to the Grindstone.

"Healthy 2...healthy 1....healthy 2....healthy 2"

Victoria the hygienist spoke her mantra into the microphone of her voice recognition system. I wondered to myself what the alternative was to "healthy" when suddenly she answered my unspoken question.

"Recession....recession...healthy 1... healthy 2..."

Uh-oh. A blip on the radar screen. A chink in the armor. A fly in the ointment.

This isn’t some strange new genre of dental sci-fi. This is real life. I go to a very hi-tech dentist. Now I do anyway. I switched after going to see the same family dentist from my early teen years well on into adulthood. Everything stayed exactly the same there. No changes to the cleaning methods, the X-rays, the flouride treatment. The same machinery, the same staff. But I finally got tired of going there, in part because they never changed a thing about their practice in 20 years (you’d have thought there were some advances in dentistry in that time - which I soon discovered there were), in part because they were expensive, but to a large degree the straw that broke the camel’s back was the obnoxious right-wing talk radio that had begun to spew forth bile replacing the elevator music that had oozed its way out of the office speaker system for years.

So a couple of years ago I started going to a urban dentist a few blocks away from my office. It was a brave new world of panoramic X-rays, soft tissue screening, zoom whitening, bacterial analysis, aroma therapy, a coffee bar, posh interiors, flat panel TVs, and progressive music. I’m not sure how this place can offer all it does for roughly the same price as my old stone age dentist, but they do.

The hygienist wears a headset microphone behind her clear plastic face screen and talks to her computer as she does an initial exam. Tooth by tooth, she ranks your gums in terms of whether they are healthy or, as I discovered Monday, receding.

I’ve taken pride for years in the health of my teeth. I don’t have a beautiful smile. There’s a gap between my top front teeth, the bottom teeth are crowded and a little crooked, and they’re all slightly yellow. But... I have virtually no decay and (until recently) very healthy gums. I was well into my 30s before I had my first cavity filled in a permanent tooth. When I was in kindergarten, I had one in a baby tooth. It happened during national dental health week. We saw an old filmstrip cartoon about plaque monsters and cavity creeps or some sort of thing and I believe it scarred me for life. I brush the crap out of my teeth. I go through toothbrushes like they’re tissue paper. But as a result, I didn’t have another cavity for 3 decades. I’ve had too very small ones now. Not bad for being nearly 40.

But this receding gum thing is something new. It’s related to grinding, something they’d warned me about before. I even have this retainer type of thing they got me to buy a couple of years ago to prevent wear and tear from grinding my teeth in my sleep. I’ve worn the points off my bicuspids. I guess my canines are bovines now. I didn’t take it that seriously before. The retainer thing was uncomfortable and made it hard to get to sleep. I didn’t get used to it in a few weeks, so I quit wearing it. But now I’ve worn through the enamel in one spot, I’m causing my gums to recede in the area where I’m grinding and there is even evidence of thickening of the bone below the teeth in these same areas which is some sort of biological response to the stress on the framework.

And that’s really the culprit. Stress. It’s got to come out somewhere. My blood pressure is low, but my teeth are paying the price. So where’s this all coming from? Life in general. As Cake once sang on their album Prolonging the Magic... "The minute you’re born you start dying..."

I’m about halfway through a ten week transition from one job to another. A board of directors voted to name me to be the successor for the retiring director of an organization that has basically one employee - the director. So in this case there has been more than the usual 2-3 weeks notice involved with leaving a job. I thought having that long of a time frame would make this change easier. Truth is, it’s prolonging the agony. I’m still doing my old job, and this is the busiest time of the year for my old position. But I’m also having to handle all the logistics of the transition, respond to requests from my new employers, plan a retirement reception, gift and other recognitions for the guy I’m replacing, help develop the budget I’ll be operating under for next year, help recruit and find a replacement for myself in my old job, and work to close out all the existing projects I’ve got going there while also passing on as much knowledge as I can to the rest of the staff.

Then there is the broken clothes dryer at home, the leaky faucet, the flat tire, the unfinished closet addition, the busted cell phone, the speeding ticket, the children needing attention, the stressed out and worn out wife, the grocery list, the dog’s barking for a walk... I should go ahead and get some titanium dentures. You know, go for the Jaws look from the James Bond movie Moonraker.

Let’s not get carried away. There may be other options. The second half of that Cake lyric is actually helpful. "The minute you’re born you start dying... so you might as well have a good time." Hmmm.... Could it be that simple. Find a way to enjoy what you’re doing. Radical concept. Whistle while you work. To quote Cheryl Crow, "It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got." To elevate these sentiments a bit, Martin Luther put it this way: "Love God and do as you please." Or as Frederick Buechner said it, "True vocation joins self and service in the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need." Eh, that’s a little too lofty.

I consider myself very blessed in that I think I’m on the verge of getting to a place like that. A real vocation. I just need to make sure I don’t forget to enjoy it while I’m there. It’s a subtle conflict. I can tell my motor is revving a little too high right now. Some days I arrive at work with ten things to do and by the time I leave I have twenty. My back aches. My digestion is off. I sleep poorly. I’m impatient with the kids. Distant from the wife. Distracted. Pre-occupied. But this period will pass. And even before it passes, I can tell that the most important factor in determining whether I have a good day or a bad one is my own attitude.

Once in a while I catch myself getting all worked up and then I think "Wait a minute. You asked for this. This is something you want to do. This is going where you want it to. Enjoy the ride." And that little moment of reflection is like blowing into a pot of pasta that’s boiling over. It cools things down, settles the surface, stops all the splattering and hissing and all the mess. For a moment anyway. It comes back eventually. But that’s okay.

I’ve watched people burn out. I’ve seen co-workers with substance abuse problems. I’ve seen people hang on in misery just to get to retirement only to die within a couple of years from a heart attack or cancer. I don’t want to go out that way.

And when I go, I want to still have some teeth left.