By Lisa Smith Molinari
“Would you like goggles for eye protection?” the cheery but humorless dental hygienist asked while I reclined in her naugahyde chair. Her question was innocent enough, but I felt interrogated under the blazing light with its hinged robotic arm.
“Ngph,” I responded, a tubular spit sucker (known as a saliva ejector) hooked in my open mouth, which she correctly interpreted as, “No, thank you.”
Why have saliva ejectors replaced those rinse and spit sinks that looked like miniature toilet bowls, anyway? I once heard there were specialized “dental plumbers” just for dental offices. “Are they out of work?” I wondered. “Is there a dental plumbers’ union? Are they marching in protest, carrying signs calling for the return of rinse and spit bowls?”
This is what happens when I go to the dentist. There’s something about reclining in a naugahyde chair, unable to move or speak, that gets my mind going. Strangely, I’ve had some of my deepest thoughts while having my teeth cleaned. My brain meanders from detailed observations, to philosophical ponderings, to intense self-examination, to in-depth analyses of the entire human race.
It all starts in the waiting room.
While perusing magazines, I usually find a recipe I’d like to take home. This must be done secretly, of course, because tearing pages out of my dentist’s magazines is technically stealing. I usually set the magazine nonchalantly on my lap and pretend to read, while tugging at the recipe. To hide ripping sounds, I wait for someone to cough, sneeze or open the doors, then “Whoosh!” I tear the page out and stuff it in my purse in one fell swoop. My hand comes out of my purse with a tube of Chapstick, which I apply stolidly and act bored.
This little act of kleptomania triggers a round of grave self-analysis. After a few minutes of guilt-induced panic, I eventually take mercy on myself, chalking recipe stealing up as a minor personality flaw. But my brain’s deep recesses have been activated, and there’s no going back.
Once I’m lounging supinely in the dental chair with instruments in my mouth, real contemplation begins. My eyes avoid direct contact with the hygienist’s, as my thoughts wade through the past, the present, and the future.
I think of my childhood, when our family dentist, Dr. Petras, put his washed but ungloved fingers into my mouth during dental exams. Moments before, he’d likely used that same hand to smoke a cigarette in his office, but I only tasted soap. He scraped tartar from my teeth with his tiny gaffing hook and polished them with a spinning rubber pencil eraser while microscopic bits of paste and saliva flew with centrifugal force. Many times during those visits, I was asked to rinse and spit into the little toilet bowl, and wondered if it had its own tiny brush.
Back in the present, I’m grateful that my hygienist is wearing gloves. However, I note that nearly everything today is sheathed in protective plastic or bacteria-filtering polypropylene fiber. My hygienist is wearing goggles and a face shield, too, which prompts the inner query, “Who is she protecting, herself or me?”
My over-processing mind then considers the future. Will scientists realize that, like old rinse and spit bowls, saliva ejectors are obsolete? How will society deal with all that drool? Will hygienists wear air-tight space suits, or will the task of dental cleaning be relegated to high-tech sanitized robot arms? What’s the danger in drool anyway? Endless COVID strains? The flu? Monkey pox? Parasitic creatures like those horrifying microscopic mites that live in our eyebrows? Have we all become hopeless hypochondriacs destined to isolate ourselves permanently and thereby doom the human race to extinction?
“You’re all set!” my hygienist says, yanking me back to reality. She opens a drawer full of new toothbrushes, mini toothpaste tubes and floss. “Take whatever you’d like,” she offers.
Admiring my teeth in my car’s rear-view mirror on the way home, I contemplate why I took a second mini toothpaste tube from the drawer while the hygienist wasn’t looking. “Minor personality flaw,” I remembered, my mind having come full circle.
Molinari is an award-winning syndicated columnist, author, blogger and speaker, as well as the wife of a Navy retiree.