Jessie Raymond: A relaxing trip … to the dentist?

Last Monday at the dentist’s office, I learned something about myself: I’m an unusual patient.
I don’t have a third set of teeth, and I can’t tune in talk radio on my fillings or anything. But, according to my dental hygienist, I’m odd because — confession time — I kind of like getting my teeth cleaned.
No, really.
I don’t mean that I adore it. I don’t count down the days, giddily anticipating my time in the chair. And of course I worry that the exam will reveal an expensive problem.
But the actual process of having the nasty built-up crud methodically scraped off my teeth, followed by a minty polish job? Pretty relaxing.
During my visits, the hygienist frequently asks if I’m doing OK. This time, I asked her if there were any reason I shouldn’t be. From her answer, I gathered that a good number of her patients suppress screams during the entire cleaning, and she must pry their fingers one by one from the chair when it’s over.
I, on the other hand, think of myself like a crocodile, sunning itself with its mouth wide open while an industrious plover zips in and picks out the leftover zebra scraps stuck between its teeth. (The crocodile, it should be noted, is pretty chill.)
I like the sensation of the gunk being scritch-scritched off my enamel. Because I keep my eyes closed, the better to drift off to my imaginary African riverbank, I’ve never seen how much tartar gets removed. But I’m pretty sure I weigh less when I leave.
It’s not like I’ve never had dental issues. I’ve had crowns put on. But other than the distressing image — and sound — of the dentist grinding down my real tooth in order to pop the fake one over it, the work itself was painless.
My only really upsetting experience at the dentist’s had nothing to do with the procedure. Years ago, while waiting for some anesthesia to take effect for a crown (see “grinding down my real tooth,” above), I chatted with the vaguely familiar dentist’s assistant. She mentioned her husband, “Jim,” and how he traveled to Montpelier every day.
Making conversation, I asked what he did for a living. (Delivery driver, I assumed.)
She blinked at me a few times and then, as gently as she could, said, “He’s … the governor.”
Suddenly, I recognized her.
(Luckily, I handled the scene beautifully. I pretended to pass out from the local anesthesia, and in the ensuing chaos she forgot all about my faux pas.)
I should have more fear of the dentist’s office. My mouth is a ticking time bomb of cracked molars holding fillings that passed their best-used-by date 15 or 20 years ago. But my semiannual cleanings have never bothered me.
If anything, I feel bad for the hygienist, who, after all, has to poke around in strangers’ mouths all day while looking up their noses. To my mind, she’s the one who should be making up excuses to cancel her appointments.
When she told me that some people dread getting their teeth cleaned, I wanted to know who these people were. After a thorough scientific survey — I asked my Facebook friends — I found that most people dislike the twice-yearly dentist trip but love how it makes their teeth feel. A rare few, like me, find it somewhat relaxing. And a small but passionate number — scarred by past dental trauma — live in near-hysterical terror of their hygienist’s disapproval and (real or perceived) borderline-sadistic detail work.
The ideal hygienist, I have concluded, (a) doesn’t criticize your oral hygiene habits in a manner that makes you want to go home and whip yourself with unwaxed floss to atone for your tartar buildup, and (b) recognizes that a dental cleaning requires a lighter touch than scraping barnacles off a hull.
Maybe I enjoy my cleanings because I’ve always had kind, nonjudgmental, careful hygienists who do the job without hurting me or insinuating that my receding gum line diminishes my worth as a human being.
One day, I fear, the precarious situation in my aging mouth is going to result in catastrophe, wherein I bite into a sandwich and all of my molars shatter simultaneously.
But until then, every six months, I’m all smiles.

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