by Mark Dvorak

I will have to get to the dentist pretty soon. It’s been a long while and I am fearing the worst. I feel lucky though, to have inherited my mother’s teeth. Two of my brothers inherited my father’s teeth, and each has already begun the dreadful odyssey into dental no man’s land.

My teeth are still plenty straight and sturdy, and they have so far served me well. I’ve had more than a few cavities over the years, and more than a few dentists. Somewhere though, I missed out on developing the dentist habit, and I guess I have regrets about that.

My favorite dentist was a young man who went by the name of Dr. Joel. He was a magician, maybe a saint. He made the bulk of his living by providing free dental work to poor people through the Chicago Human Services Department. I liked going to see him at his private, shared office, and I liked him as a person. Dr. Joel turned each cleaning and drilling, and the one random root canal, into a practical and buoyant experience. “A trip to the dentist,” said Dr. Joel, “ought to be pain free.”

And then one day Dr. Joel moved to Tennessee. Once while on the road, I did make an appointment to see him in his new office near Lynchburg. He flossed me and cleaned me and filled a couple of small cavities, and did not charge me a cent. When I got home, I sent him a thank you note and a check for what I thought to be a reasonable amount. Dr. Joel never cashed it. I never saw nor heard from him again.

Stereo speakers were mounted in Dr. Joel’s examination room and he had a lot of CDs. He always asked his patients what kind of music they liked. But by the time he became my dentist, it had also become a little complicated to try and answer his question. “Something you prefer,” I told him. “You’re the one working.”

Each visit, when it was time for Dr. Joel to dig in, he’d hand me a wooden thing I’m sure dentists have a name for, that resembles a long popsicle stick. He instructed me to hold it against my chest as he worked and when I needed to spit, to simply signal him by raising the stick. While Dr. Joel probed and scraped, I’d focus on the sounds coming from the stereo. Every so often I’d give the signal and spew a mixture of water, saliva and what all else into the little porcelain sink mounted by the side of the dentist’s chair. It was when Joel stopped talking that I became the most worried. He’d hunch up a little from his stool and the drill began to whirr. And it whirred. I’d lose track of the music, and after a time give the signal. He’d back away, and again I’d spit. I learned something about relaxing during those visits with Dr. Joel. I learned something about letting another be in charge. And just like he promised, my trip to the dentist was always pain free.

Every so often when working on music, I find myself closing in on something really worth going after. But If I start thinking too much, that’s when the music and writing begin to stick. That’s when I start to force the work, and I find myself pushing too hard toward some safe and familiar passage. I find myself grabbing for something that might fetch a quick compliment, or I find myself in the middle of concocting some elaborate alibi, that might absolve me of all blame or responsibility.

Then all sorts of unrelated feelings, fears and opinions come crashing in on the whole affair. These are dangerous I’ve learned, and usually lead to all kinds of unpleasantness. Fully distracted, I check the internet again. I open the paper and begin the crossword puzzle, my inner artist now reduced to either a frightened whimpering child, or transformed into a smoldering barbarian, armed and hell-bent on wreaking vengeance on the evil world.

Working and practicing ought to be pain free, yet sometimes they are not. There are times to dig in, and there are other times to raise the popsicle stick, and spit. At those times, everything I know, everything I want, everything I think, and everything I am afraid of, are only in the way. This is the time to remember to breathe. This is the time to try to relax, and let another be in charge. This is the time to listen again, for the music.


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