A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, July 22, 2011

Jedi Dentistry

[Disclaimer:  This essay contains allusions that will be obtuse and irritating to members of the reading public who have not seen the original Star Wars, including Mom, Dad, and several residents of Tuvalu and Djibouti.]

“Have you been flossing their teeth?”
Dr. Pendegrast’s face was furrowed with kindly concern as she looked at the diminutive x-rays.
“Umm…” I felt parental guilt crashing around me like a tsunami. I help them brush, I mentally protested. Molly and Lizzy don’t eat Cocoa Puffs with Coke for breakfast and Gummy Bear sandwiches for lunch.  Ok, so there’s often blueberry cobbler or Heavenly Hash after dinner, but such items are an important part of the Sinful Food Group.  We brush right afterward.  But flossing?  I’m pretty sure I never flossed my own teeth until I was twenty. 
 “Well… um… no.”
I never got cavities in my baby teeth.  My kids, it seemed, were not so lucky. Dr. Pendergrast told me that not one, but BOTH twins need not one, but MORE than one filling.  My stomach knotted with worry.  Would the kids behave themselves?  Would they dread each visit?  Would they have nightmares about those huge robotic dental chairs? 
It all depended on whether my Jedi mind tricks were good enough to earn me a light saber. 
Even while I was wallowing in self-recrimination, I knew what I had to do.  I made the appointments, and I limbered up my acting muscles.  If I wanted to save my kids’ teeth from the Dark Side while maintaining sanity, harmony, and tranquility in our corner of the galaxy, I had one week to create a self-fulfilling prophesy of happy dentistry. 
As a novice parent, it took me a while to realize that small children resemble Imperial Storm Troopers – not just because they run around a lot, have extremely poor aim, and like silly costumes, but also because they may actually believe you when you tell them, “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”   It took me even longer to appreciate the full possibilities of approaching tricky situations with a combination of utter conviction and feigned disinterest. 
I don’t have the advantage of resembling Obi-Wan Kenobi – at least, not last time I checked.  (Mom and Dad, even my spell checker recognizes Obi-Wan).  Still, the utter conviction part is not too difficult when I actually am convinced.  This in known is non-parenting circles as “being truthful.”  I’m pretty sure this helped with a few useful traits the kids have picked up.  Like their parents, Molly and Lizzy enjoy hiking, running, biking, libraries, cool bugs, scruffy dogs, and weird scientific questions.  They are avid consumers of cucumbers, spinach, tofu, oat bran, and beets.
I’ve tried not to even imagine that my kids won’t love these things, because truthfulness alone is not enough.  Avoiding over-eagerness is important too.  Even toddlers are remarkably savvy to when they are being given a hard sell.  The “yummy, yummy, yummy” peas are likely to come flying back in Daddy or Mommy’s face, and the “awesome fabulous big-kid potty” may be shunned.  Thus, this can be tricky. Not thinking negative thoughts is like not looking at the elephant in the corner.  It’s like pretending you don’t notice that the AT-AT bearing down on you is four hundred times larger than you are.  I try to avoid saying things like “Come on, try this, it’s so fun/delicious/educational.”  Even if it is.
It’s even tougher when acting skills are required.  When it comes to the “cleaning up messes is fun” mind-trick, Jay and I have not made Yoda proud.  In fact, a few days ago I knew I’d failed dismally when a simple request to pick up a few toys caused Lizzy to start sobbing.  It was then that I noted that a) I hate cleaning up; b) I’m completely inconsistent about it and c) I present it to the kids as if it were a punishment akin to being locked out at night on the ice-planet Hoth.  Clearly I’m a moron, because at preschool, Lizzy happily dances around picking up toys and singing the cleanup song with all the other little people.
And now I was facing a new test.  This particular case seemed like a tall order for a novice Jedi knight.  Unfortunately, I do not associate dentistry with rainbows, sunsets, ocean breezes, and the wafting notes of dulcimers. But I didn’t have any choice about it.  The key to pulling off the mind trick, I reasoned, isn’t to hope for success, but to ASSUME it. “Do.  Or do not. There is no try.”  Ok, fine.  I don’t know if Yoda ever had a root canal, but if he did, I’m sure he approached it with muppetty stoicism. 
With one week to obsess over the subject, I realized that I needed to work on my conviction.  In order to do so, it would help to draw from the truth.  What’s comforting, fun, and charming about fillings?  Luckily, I had a lot to work with.  The dental office that our family visits is elegant, graceful, and welcoming, with lots of sunlight streaming through arched windows, state-of-the-art equipment, and such comfortable chairs that napping during a cleaning seems like a realistic possibility.  Dr. Pendergrast is about as gentle, competent, and grandmotherly as anyone could possibly wish.  Her hygienists are all cheerful, friendly, and solicitous. The receptionist treats me like a friend. And to top it off, there’s a box of toys at the end of the hall for pint-sized patients. But… it’s still a dentist’s office. 
Gathering the Force around me, I set out to convince Molly and Lizzy that dental hygienists are as charming as Elmo and Dora, that Novocain is an exciting adventure in numbness, and that Dr. Pendergrast’s box of plastic trinket-prizes is as exciting as Fort Knox – all without seeming to care too much. 
I stayed attuned for every sneaky opportunity. “You’re right, I think those are baby twins in that stroller!”  Molly and Lizzy are always on the lookout for other litters of siblings.  “Hey, you know who else has twins?  One of Dr. Pendergrast’s hygienists!  Her twins are big kids, almost seven.” To five-year-olds, kids aged six through eight are the gold standard of coolness.
“Alex told you the dentist gives shots?”  Uh-oh.  Beware of the peer group.  “He probably didn’t understand about Novocain.  I bet you’ll understand.”  The kids like the idea that they are scientists with Nobel Laureate potential. “See, feelings in your body are communicated by cells called nerves. Novocain blocks the nerves, so you can’t feel anything, kind of like when your foot falls asleep.  Can you imagine your tongue falling asleep?  It’s pretty funny.  It thort of makth you talk like thith for a while.” This last part was deemed so hilarious that I had to elaborate on it for five minutes, like an inebriated cartoon duck.
And speaking of ducks…“Hmmm…. I don’t think we have any more toys to float in the rain barrel, but did you see all those rubber duckies in the dentist’s prize box?  We could collect a whole family of them!”
“I think we’re all out of chapstick.  Darn.” Luckily, Molly and Lizzy don’t yet have any idea about the relative costs of items such as duckies, chapstick, and diamond tiaras.  Either that, or they are resigned to the fact that Mommy is too cheap to buy them anything. “Oh, but remember that little tube of special chapstick Daddy got last time he visited Dr. Pendergrast?”  Daddy’s chapstick is so flabbergastingly awesome it almost caused a riot a month or so ago.  “If we’re really lucky, she might have some for you, too.”
On the fateful day, thirty minutes before the Hour of Reckoning, Lizzy bounded up to me at the preschool gate. “We get to go to the dentist today!” she chirped.
The kids’ preschool teacher gave me a bemused look as I hustled Molly and Lizzy out the gate, each trailing the inevitable fragile-yet-sticky art projects behind her.  “I wish I were that enthusiastic about the dentist,” she murmured.
Given my kids’ excitement, I had obviously already passed the first hurdle.  Now I would find out whether the mind trick held, when tested. 
When we were called in from the waiting room, I perched on a stool between two partitioned-off cubes, while the twins were each dwarfed by a massive examining chair. I feigned cheery calm.  I feigned fascination as the shiny little dental tools were introduced.
The staff knew what they were doing.  They kept the giant needles out of the kids’ line of sight like conjurers. They maintained cheerful patter, and slathered on the praise.  They were, in short, as charming to small children as Elmo and Dora – and infinitely less irritating to adults.  Novocain was kind of cool – as all new sensations are, when you’re five.  The drill was never actually called a drill.  The chapstick materialized, in appealingly miniature tubes and exotic flavors.  And the prizes?  Well, who WOULDN’T be thrilled by a rubber duckie wearing a bowler hat? 
Slowly, very slowly, I released my pent-up breath.
The receptionist heaped congratulatory words on all three of us on our way out the door.  The kids, still slurring their words through numb lips, were excitedly discussing which prizes they’d choose on our next visit, the following week.  And although I was still harboring guilt about the inadequacy of my previous cavity-prevention techniques, I felt like I’d blown up an enemy battle station. 
I’d succeeded.  On the other hand, success in one venue makes me question everything else, and bemoan lost opportunities.  Why can’t I – using my newfound powers and my imaginary light-saber -- convince my kids to put away their stuffed animals, pipe cleaners, and special rocks?  Why can’t I cure myself of my addiction to chocolate?  Why doesn’t everyone rush to save the planet when I blather on about renewable energy, organic produce, and waste reduction?
And what about my future as a parent?  Sure, I can pull of a Jedi mind trick on a couple of five-year-olds, but I suspect the twins’ credulity will have diminished sharply a decade from now. Obviously I need a lot of work honing my skills – because the Empire always strikes back.


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