Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tooth and Error.

The following follows on from yesterday's entry, Dilemma. I was five minutes late to the dentist and so didn't even get to sit down and sort through the antique National Geographic magazines before I was ushered into the surgery. When I walked in Dr Doe (I'm embarrassed to say I didn't even get his name) already had his gloves on and was adding instruments to an existing pile of cutters, scrapers, fillers, and piercers. "Hi, take a seat." I did. "So we start root canal treatment today, huh?"

C-DOG: Probably.

Dr DOE: Probably?

C-DOG: I've still got some questions.

Dr DOE: Questions? OK, shoot.

C-DOG: Well, just say I got one of those drill bits lost somewhere in my head, would...

Dr DOE: Yeah?

C-DOG: ...would I have to pay for a replacement?

Dr DOE: [Laughing] No, no you wouldn't. The first few are on the house.

C-DOG: You know, I'd probably buy you a new one anyway - hopefully a better one than the one that broke. I think that's just being polite.

Dr DOE: Right. Thank you.

C-DOG: Another thing is almost everyone I've spoken to who has had root canal work done reckons it has largely been an expensive waste of time - the teeth break or turn beige and fall out, or keep oozing pus or pulp or hurting them in some way. Things like that.

Dr DOE: Actually, the real success-rate for the procedure is around 90%.

C-DOG: I'm not sure I understand. At what point after the operation is "success" indicated?

Dr DOE: I'm not sure.

C-DOG: It seems important to me - crucial.

Dr DOE: I can chase up the study if you want, but look, you know, the mouth is a very hostile environment. All dentistry is really just stalling tactics - delaying degeneration. It can't stop it.

C-DOG: Surely that's not just true of dentistry but of all medicine, isn't it?

Dr DOE: I guess so, when you put it like that.

C-DOG: Right.

Dr DOE: That's a bit depressing.

Depressing?!? I didn't conjure up this vision of nihilist medicine. He did.

C-DOG: Anyway, you see I'm still not sure I want to do it.

Dr DOE: The root canal work?

C-DOG: Yeah.

Dr DOE: Well, it's either that or get the tooth pulled. They're the only options, you know? There's not a lot of things you can do.

C-DOG: I know. I'll get my tooth pulled.

Dr DOE: What?

C-DOG: I'll get the tooth pulled.

Dr DOE: [LONG PAUSE] OK, that's easy.

C-DOG: Maybe - but I think I still want you to do it.

Dr DOE: You don't want to have a go yourself?

C-DOG: No.

Dr DOE: Oh, OK then. We'll get started.

C-DOG: Because, you know, if I did it well you might feel humiliated, given that I've had no dental training.

Pause. Weirdish look from Dr Doe. Unsure if it's a half-smile or a wince.

Dr DOE: Well it's good in a way, because I've felt a bit sick today and, to be honest, I wasn't looking forward very much to starting the day with a RC procedure. So it suits me.

Yes, he really said that. In his defence, at one point today he excused himself and coughed violently in a corner of the room for a while. When he finished he muttered "I'm dying" (although but I'm sure he was saying it is the sense of "Zikes! I'm dying out here," rather than "I'm dying of cancer.")* Dr Doe traded some of his implements - swapped a multitude of space-age ones for a few brass and iron barbershop weapons - the ones you'd gravitate towards if a fight broke out in the surgery - or it was invaded - and you were forced to defend yourself.

The course was now set, and I was upbeat - albeit having a few articulation problems. "Everyone wins," I said. "And, you know, if I did get root canal work done I wouldn't be able close my mouth and lick my cheek."
"You want to do that?"
"I'm brainstorming."

He loaded me up with lidocaine, not without some medium-to-large expressions of pain. From me. After the second injection he said: "I've got two seven year-old girls at home who are tougher than you."
"Two on one isn't fair. So I'm a wuss. I came here to get my teeth fixed, not my character."

I was out of there in just under twenty-five minutes. And it cost me $115. That's a saving of $2875 - although they didn't let me take my tooth home. Why not? "It's a biohazard." ("Listen, you're the one who's dying," I thought to myself - and then felt guilty in case he was, in fact, dying. OK Chris, he's not.)

A few hours out, I'm already enjoying pushing my tongue through the gap and licking the inside of my cheek - all with my mouth closed. I keep imagining that my tongue is a slug that pokes its head through a hole and steals some food before darting back to safety.

As I said, everyone wins. Thanks for people's valuable feedback. (Were any of you actually dentists? Or dental hobbyists? Pretty cocky bunch if you weren't.)

* Dr Doe appeared to change into "civilian" attire and leave straight after he finished with me. This would seem to corroborate his claim that he was not feeling well. But there are other possibilities: Was he even a dentist? Or could some needle-happy prankster just have walked in off the street and treated me for kicks?

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Because of an upcoming recording session with Mindy Sotiri (aka. Dr Prisonsongbaby), I've been going to a rehearsal studio in St Peters, and I've learned something as a result. Question: If you couldn't see the members or know anything about their taste in music, how would you spot the X-Gen band? Answer: They're the ones talking about their teeth. Gene, Chris, Mindy, Scott and I talked about the cost of root planing and took a quick filling tally; later we debated the longevity of crowns and cursed the fragility of post-root canal teeth. Don't be misled.

We rock hard.

And why should you or anyone else expect otherwise? It shouldn't be embarrassing to openly discuss dental care - and to do so does not automatically disqualify one as an artist. This is not the first time I've discussed teeth on this blog - and it won't be the last. My mouth, into whom I have poured staggering amounts of capital in the last year, is still revolting. A poor but hardened vet of countless extractions, fillings, braces, plates, and - most recently - "root planing," I am due to start my first root canal treatment at 8 tomorrow morning.

Or am I

Let's start with some facts: apart from the cost ($1500 for the root canal procedure and $1500 to fit the "crown" which completes the treatment), almost nothing else in this herculean feat of molar compassion is guaranteed. Root canal therapy also comes with a "reputation" - serves as a paradigm case of dental suffering. As overstated as this popular image might be, I am not so skeptical of the cliche that I am seduced by Kavo Corporation's likening of the procedure to a hummingbird sucking gently on some ornithophilous flower. (Perhaps this oral Eden can be realised only when your dentist uses Kavo Corp's "SONICflex endo," a product whose revolutionary use of upper and lower case letters hints at a possible breakthrough in oral technology. Dental surgery or dental perjury? It's hard to know.)

Doctors and dentists - especially the subset of these that are men - still don't seem to like to discuss things with their patients, engage in dialogues with them. But they are much keener than they used to be about talking to (or at least at) their patients. Even those older dentists, those who have never known gentleness, hardened men whose coarse hands are strangers to human feeling, seem just as likely as younger medicos these days to discuss "treatment options."

Like I'd been on an excursion, I was given a disturbingly bright A4 information sheet about my illness, possible treatments, risks, and chances of success. It seemed passably complete and systematic. After the high-school-textbook section "The Healthy Tooth," we are told of its enemy - "infection or inflammation" - and its victim: "Pulp." The sheet concluded with a pornographically detailed description of the surgery and a sobering list, which sat under the heading "Possible Side Effects of Root Canal Treatment" - a bulleted bestiary of tics, traumas, and paths to ruin: "altered feeling" in the mouth, tooth discolouration and loss, infections, "pain and discomfort," and "weakness" (poetically remedied by wearing a "crown.")

And there was also something else worth reporting back on. Have you heard of "file fracture"? If not, here is the description:

"Special metal files are used to clean the inside of the root canal. These instruments are very fine and occasionally may break during use. Special procedures may be needed to remove the broken portion of the file, or you may be referred to a specialist. In some cases, it may not be possible to remove the fractured portion of the file: the long-term effects of this will depend on many factors. Such as whether the canal was infected and whether it had been cleaned before the fracture. Your dentist will discuss this with you in more details if a file fracture occurs."

It's an amazing admission really, a touching display of medical honesty. And here's an equally interesting display of honesty - a comment left by someone on an "Ask The Dentist" discussion board:

"About two years ago, I had a root canal done. In the process, the drill bits being used by the dentist broke three times. I have three tiny pieces of metal stuck inside my gum, under my molar. Should I be worried?"

Not a problem, came the reply. Regular dental appointments, your dentist being aware of the problem, and periodic x-rays of the area, should minimise significantly the risk of infection. The denstist concludes:

"If the thought of having these tiny pieces of metal in your gum bothers you, you can talk with an oral surgeon."

The implication here is that the person needs counselling, like the sentence could have continued "...and if you can't find or afford the services an oral surgeon, try talking to a close friend or relative about it."

If an optometrist, for instance, informed us that the eye test we were about to take may not only fail to diagnose weaknesses in vision, but actually burn our retinas and blind us, it wouldn't be unreasonable to want more details. So, what are some of the "many factors" that determine the "long-term effects" of file fracture? Can we even be told? Would we have ears to hear it? Or are the realities here best faced solely by the braver members of the dental corps?

The unease wrought by things left unsaid in the information sheet continued. In the last paragraph we are warned - as if it were a fact yet to be established - that the list "is not complete." There are also "less common complications," the natures of which are (predictably) left to our respective imaginations, which are to be constrained only by the stipulation that what is imagined shouldn't resemble anything so run-of-the-mill as having medical instruments break off and lodge permanently inside our bodies. We we need to picture are abnormal complications.

This blog is entitled "Dilemma." Here it is: rather than spend six hours and $3000 on a tooth destined to fall out and amount to nothing more than the world's ugliest marble, should I just get the troublemaker yanked and look after those children who need only for me to clean and floss them? Besides, it's not my only tooth. And it's much cheaper.

Or is this Crazytalk, the ravings of a man whose pulp has been so obviously and grievously assaulted by infection and inflammation that he can no longer think straight?

I've got to make my mind up very quickly. By 8am in fact.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I promised in a previous post ("Amateurs") that I'd provide Security Guard Guitarist News as it came to hand. I'm honouring my word.

R. caught me playing guitar today. I'd grabbed my beautiful blonde Maton acoustic, headed down to the lower playing field on campus and positioned myself - for reasons hard to comprehend - inside a baseball practice net. Side question: Why do we even have baseball nets on campus? Answer: I have no idea. Perhaps planners thought that the mere presence of the nets would be all that was required to entice potential players to take up the sport. (The only other sporting facilities in the vast field are two mint-condition triple-jump tracks. Obviously two were required to prevent the kind of student unrest that would have ensued if keen jumpers on campus were forced to stand in long lines waiting their turn.)

Whatever. The place is relatively isolated; the nearest structures - the gym and the Assessment and Examination Unit - are a few hundred metres away. People working or working out might see someone holding a guitar and lurching about drunkenly but wouldn't be able to tell if they were actually playing or (with all due respect to mimes) just miming; or if they were really drunk, or just a bit weird; or whether or not the performer's eyes were open or closed. (This last point will become relevant.)

I had a cigarette, got into my Chris Fleming - Live at the Budokan pose, and began to sing and strum like...I was playing live at the Budokan. I shut my eyes, craned my neck, and swayed. The Blind Melon Fleming act is part emotional fact and part rock-star act. At its best, playing music is a bit like pulling off some improbable illusion and then believing in the trick. To do this, apparently I need to shut my eyes and contort my face.

Another thing is that I, like my father, often close my eyes to help me to concentrate. And I, also like him, have had to occasionally placate people who judged me to be an intolerably sleepy interlocutor. During the interview for my first academic position I was asked a tangled question about "the origins of modern disciplinarity and disciplinary knowledge." I'm told that I shut my eyes midway through the question, kept them closed while I considered it, and only opened them about a minute into my reply. Even the person who recounted this, long after the fact, admitted that he himself had worried for a few seconds that I actually had nodded off.

I hardly need to remind people that this isn't a self-help blog - and voluntary blindness isn't a panacea. But it's rarely a problem when I play guitar and sing. It may look unusual, but it's not dangerous* - and I can't see myself anyway. (Besides, I got the job.)

But Bat Vision was a problem today. It prevented me, for instance, from noticing the security van as it approached the net - and also from noticing that the car had stopped only metres from where I was standing. And then, finally, it was a major player in me not notice R. roll down his window and then listen and watch for a minute or two. (In my defense, it's surely unreasonable to expect anyone to notice someone listening to them.)

Then, miraculously, I emerged from my coma.

But instead of seeing a blurry and beneficent Oliver Sacks leaning over me, his tears of joy pinging tunefully as they dropped into the bedpan beside my bed, R. sat motionless in the jeep, addressing me with a massive (and possibly psychotic) smile. I hoped that this was a signal that he was amused - or at least that even if he weren't a famous neurologist, at least he wasn't psychotic.

The song he caught me playing is ostensibly "funny." The first verse goes like this:**

Everything in my life is bad, everything is sad.
Everything in my life is shit 'cause of my mum and dad.
Got no money, got no friends, I'm of uncertain health.
Got no woman to call my own, I think I'll shoot myself.

I try to perform the song in a way that would move any Ray-Cyrus. (So "everything" is pronounced "ayvraythang," "I'll" is "owl," "shit" is "sheeyiet," and so on and so forth.) R's stained, Stonehenge smile seemed to have become frozen onto his face - like "the wind had changed," as my mother used to say. Perhaps, I thought, him being amused was no reassurance at all; maybe psychotic people would find the song funny. Like Petrucio taming Kate, I tried to out-mad R's madness, match him smile for smile, and wait him out. I won.

"Drone tones," he finally said. "The ole drone tone."
"You gotta love those drone tones. Play anything with drones and it sounds good - even really simple stuff."

He snapped back into the smile like an alien hoping to avoid detection.

"Yeah, stuff you could play with your eyes closed" I said.

The deep-space silence following my private joke gave me enough time to reflect on the fact that R. had just simultaneously implied that what I was playing "sounded good" - but that whatever its merits were, these were entirely reducible to my reliance on a technique so rudimentary it could have formed the basis of pre-hominid folk communication.

"So you just came down here to have a bit of a bash, huh?" R. asked.
"Actually, no - this is a gig. It's just that only you guys turned up."

The guard in the passenger's seat laughed - albeit about ten seconds - too late. Keep joking, Dr C-Dog, keep joking.

"But thanks for doing security for me anyway."

Finally, R. laughed. (Or perhaps it was just an unusual cough.) "OK - catch you later C. Enjoy yourself." I started playing again as the two drove off and circled the playing field in the jeep. Ignoring what was in front of him R. pinned his eyes on me as they passed from a distance of about fifty metres. I sang as loudly as I could.

My principal fear wasn't that they'd think I was a shitty player, singer, or comedian - but that, despite being payed more than them while working at the same institution, I apparently had so little to do that I could bring my guitar to work and wander around playing it with my eyes closed. I don't know whether either of them actually did think this - but it worried me that they might. It wouldn't have been the first time.

I've worked with members of "non-academic" staff who've come to realise that what they do - like use Excel, check student records, and get people to fill out long forms - is similar to what some academics do. The main difference seems to be that the academics are: (a) far shitter at the designated tasks; and (b) get paid more money. No one realised this fact more clearly - and was more willing to articulate it - than B. How embarrassed I was then when she walked into my office and caught me reading. It wasn't The Telegraph and so it shouldn't have been embarrassing.

"Hi C.. You waiting for someone."

She wasn't asking a question, just requesting confirmation.

"No, actually, I'm reading."
"Oh. Lucky you. What?"
"It's called The Scenic Imagination. It's about..."
"Sounds boring."
"It's good that you don't have to read it then, huh?"
"Do you?"
"No I don't. I'm just reading it because I hate myself. What do you like to read?"
"Reading is boring. It makes me sleepy."
"But, you know, I actually do read magazines when I go on leave. Have you been on leave?"
"No. Why?"
"Or to the beach a lot?"

Ah, I see what you're getting at. I prickled at the question and the prejudice it expressed. You see, I tan very easily, and as a result people are always asking me if I've "been away" when all I've done is walk to IGA a couple of times or push a pram around Sydney Park. I'm not trying to look like a Bra Boy. I wear sunscreen and a hat and try to walk on the shady side of the road. But I'm not going to traipse around wearing The Hengtai Corporation's Umbrella Hat simply to prevent people making spurious assumptions about my work ethic. It would be un-Australian to prefer to be seen by others as a wanker rather than a bludger.

The painful truth is, however, that I work very hard - and am, in fact, something of a wanker. (By way of demonstration, I draw your attention to the fact that this blog has endnotes.)

* To nuance that assertion slightly, the technique is only mildly dangerous, in that I'm about 100% more likely to walk into things. That's one of the reasons I tend to play and sing in parklands rather than, say, jewellery stores.

**I refuse to say, as is common amongst singer-songwriters, that it "goes a little like this" or "something like this.