"Aw, c'mon, Charles, ya big sis!" —my grandfather's dentist, ca. 1930, tapping on a foot-pumped drill and working without Novocaine, in response to my grandfather's pained question about how much longer the job was going to take.
I spend most of my time here at Writing Boots—most of my time anywhere, actually—talking about the keys to getting one's ideas across to others. And so little time talking from the perspective of the others—the ones being spoken to.
Well last week I got some bad news at the dentist. Some real bad news. Suffice it to say that over much of the next several months I'm going to be the one without the information, the emotionally vulnerable one, the one on the wrong end of the pointy metal things. The one who has to trust.
Why do I find myself in this situation?
Surely, it's partly because I'm willing to risk a lot to avoid being the communicatee.
I've also had some bad experiences with dentists and orthodontists.
My childhood dentist was a naturally kind Jewish liberal who I think did not really want to be a dentist. He was prone to temper tantrums, and occasionally threw dental implements over my chest, at his assistant. I last saw Dr. Fishman when I was in college.
The orthodontist my parents hired was named Dr. Haas, but he was about the right age to be an escaped Nazi concentration camp physician known for his cruel experiments in orthodontia. Dr. Haas actually attached barbed wire to my lower teeth in order to prevent me from pushing my front teeth out by a morally reprehensible swallowing technique that Dr. Haas called contemptiously, "tongue-thrusting."
I'll go into no detail about my dental problems specifically but I should say that one of them is that I still have 26-year-old orthodontic bands around my molars, because I was able to remove the barbed wire by mysef, but not the bands. (I hope Dr. Haas is dead now. But I remember he had a son.)
And the only dentist I've seen since then was Dr. Chu, who was a perfectly sweet Chinese man. "Hurt you? Hurt you?" he would ask every five or six seconds. But Dr. Chu required seven appointments to achieve a root canal. He performed two or three of them on me, and cleaned my teeth. Fifteen appointments. That was enough.
I haven't seen a dentist in five or six years.
And so now I'll be seeing the dentist a lot.
I think I've found a very good one. Based on my first appointment, here are a few observations:
1. It's not that people being told bad medical news don't listen very well. It's that they don't hear a fucking thing after the initial bad news is shared. I couldn't tell you 20 percent of what they told me about what's going to happen over the next three or four months. All I know is the date of my next appointment. And really, that's all I care to know.
2. First chill, then stupor—and then the letting go. It's actually a kind of comfort to be told something difficult, as long as the person telling it acknowledges that they know it's difficult, and has a stake in helping you fix the problem. Okay, Doc. What do we need to do?
3. It's possible to have dentists (and doctors too, presumably) with exquisit bedside manner: Who are tender, good-humored and exude openness to hearing your cries, your repetitive questions and even your gallows humor. (I told him the "big sis" story and he laughed.)
I'm in good hands, I think. I'll share whatever more I learn about communication—and God, I'd better learn something out of this—along the way.