Dentist

There’s a classic shot in alien movies where the abducted wakes up in a flash of bright light. His eyes close and open lazily, and the shot feels the darkness rise and fall with each blink. Perception is fuzzy, but there’s a bright light overheard. Creatures in masks methodically bring tools in and out of the frame–tools at which we can only guess the purpose, tools for cutting and slicing and drilling and pulling and sucking. This scene is terrifying because it’s shot from the first-person perspective, but even more terrifying because it mimics the trip to the dentist, a much despised but exceedingly necessary bi-annual event.

Some people might claim they like the dentist, but they’ve never been. I was one of these for years, as a bouncy child with bright pearly whites and resilient enamel. I’d never glimpsed a drill, and the worst memory of my youth was when my hygienest used a cinnamon polish that made me puke out my mom’s window on the way to a friend’s birthday party. The hard times were the times when I got sealant on my back molars, a gentle tsk tsk from the dentist when I shrugged embarrassingly at the “how often do you floss?” question, the days there were only balloons and no more toy cars in the goody basket.

I'm a cool customer in the dentist's chair.

So I say again, if you like the dentist, you’ve never been. You’ve never had ’em throw a rubber dam over your mouth, push and pull your lips aside, shoot you up with novocaine, mutilate your gums, and then dump you by the side of the road, your wallet a little bit lighter for the process.

My last few trips to the dentist have been eventful, which is not what you want. In January, I started at a new practice and after all the x-rays and introductions, they discovered the need for some fillings in two spots. I went a week later for the first spot to be filled. The second appointment was scheduled for a week later. I never went back after that first experience. I had hoped it would go away.

Fast forward six months and they’ve still got work to do in the same spot, and it might be getting worse, too. So today I went in for the follow up and let them go to town on me.

I don’t know what it is about dentists that makes them want to carry on a conversation with you as they’re pulling your teeth about, but it seriously baffles me. They ask complex questions about the state of political affairs in the Middle East, or a few words on the importance of environmental conservation. I’m trying to throw together a response with a nod and an “mmm, eh aghsloff” here and there, hoping the subject’ll change and we can move back to yes’s and no’s.

The thing that’s always been somewhat striking to me is that dentists seem to lack a sense of humor. They have to know their job brings misery, they have to! It’s a brutal experience, the subject of good stand-up and bad blog posts. And yet, when you throw around some sarcastic comments about pain and the horror of the process, they brush it aside, “Oh it won’t be that bad!” If most dental hygienists in my experience weren’t such kind and friendly young women, I wouldn’t be able to keep myself from responding, with a glare and a declaration: “Are you fucking kidding me?”

As one hygienest was shooting me up with a four-inch needle at the start of the process, she kept asking “Is it still okay? Still doing good?” No, it wasn’t. But what am I supposed to say? Is there an alternate method, something less painful that she’s waiting to pull out of her drawer when I utter a word of complaint? If not, then why ask? I know the needle is going to be terrible and I know it’s a necessary part of the process, if I’m going to be spared later pain. Just shoot me up and get it over with.

I was smart enough today to bring in an some headphones and some music while the drilling was happening (TV on the Radio’s New Cannonball Blues goes nicely with the rhythm of a supersonic drill, by the way. Keep an eye out for the remix). I’d finally found a way to tune out the worst of the ambient dental noises, and a way to cue the doc that I wasn’t interested in carrying on a deep conversation about my well-being or African hunger. I was so shot up with novocaine today that I actually fell asleep in the chair. About an hour through the process, the dentist pulled out my ear plug and told me I was “doing great!” I was motionless, looked like a balloon had exploded across my face, drugged and numb across half my mouth. I’m glad I was doing so well.

A half hour later, I walked out of the office with a smile like Two-Face and a strange affinity for rubbing my numbed-up lip and feeling nothing in return. Now, I can feel the numbness fading and the pain coming on. I’m not quite sure when I’ll get a chance to eat again or whether this experience will be inspirational enough in the long term to keep me flossing more than once a month. A horror film indeed–and I paid $190 for the pleasure of the experience. Love that dentist.

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On fathers and sons and baseball

say something to make sense of the Dad falling to his death trying to catch a baseball for his son

My grandmother’s favorite story to tell me is the story of my younger brother’s birth. While my parents were at the hospital, I was a little boy with just two years and four days experience in the ways of the world, and I had no business bouncing off hospital waiting rooms or dodging between stretchers and wheel chairs. So I stayed home with grandma, and we occupied the time with a game of baseball. “You were only two,” she tells me, literally every time I see her, “and you had a big, red plastic bat.” She pauses here for emphasis. “I would pitch you that ball, and you would hit it every time!” Since that day, I’ve graduated from high school and college, learned to play the violin, played varsity baseball and ultimate Frisbee, earned a job, become engaged, and yet nothing seems to make my grandmother prouder than this moment. I was precocious! Athletically gifted! Not a care in the world except baseball! The perfect grandson: photogenic, dimpled, too young to talk back.

Over the years, my batting average began to steadily decline from that perfect day of 1.000 hitting, and my Dad took up the pitching duties. We played in the backyard day after day. He’d throw me tennis balls and I’d swing and miss and get pissed at his pitching and throw the ball back to him–hard–because it wasn’t my fault I couldn’t hit, dammit, it was his. So he’d up the ante. We owned no fewer than two pitching machines in my youth, one to throw specially designed foam balls, one that pitched out golf-ball sized whiffle balls. The latter would surely improve my hand-eye coordination. The former, my timing. When my arms were achey, we’d go inside and grab a soda and sit down on the couch and watch a hitting video. Dad would pause and rewind wherever necessary. We’d look at swing mechanics, he’d draw up diagrams. We’d talk philosophy of hitting. Then, we’d go back outside and I’d take a few cuts on the tee while he loaded up ball after ball, adjusting my feet here, tweaking my hand position there.

When the light faded away, we’d get in a few final cuts and then we’d go inside for dinner and catch the end of whatever game was on TV that night. The Padres were our favorite team because of Tony Gwynn–pure hitting machine with a work ethic to feed his mechanics. We’d watch his swing and try to figure out what he was doing right and how I could replicate it in the yard the next day. In between, we’d scoff at Gary Sheffield’s wild bat or the way that goofy no-name big-leaguers would lunge at the ball without keeping their bodies steady. They could probably use the video we’d watched earlier that day, we’d agree.

It wasn’t just about hitting, either. We built a pitcher’s mound in the backyard when I made it up to the high school level and we both sort of realized that I wasn’t ever going to be a good hitter, but I could still be a good ballplayer by being a good pitcher. Dad bought a catcher’s mitt to go along with his first-baseman’s glove so that he could squat down with his newly purchased (used) shin guards and cup (“check out what I got!” he would tell me, holding the cup right up to my face).

It’s amazing to me, upon reflection, that his two mitts were each for receiving. He had a floppy, oversized first-baseman’s glove that I couldn’t even hold up when I was younger, and then the brand-new amber-colored catcher’s mitt that he bought on a whim one day at the sporting goods store. Both gloves were all about being a big target for a young arm. He just wanted to get the ball and get it back to me so I could throw the next pitch, make the next play at first, hit the glove right in the spot. On days when we practiced hitting, he’d only ask that I throw him a few tennis balls for five minutes at the end of our two hour BP marathons. Dad had played as a boy, and his dad sure as hell never pitched to him. He wanted me to love the game like he did, and always wanted me to have someone to throw the ball with.

My first pro ball game was at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego when I was six years old. I still remember, as all little boys do, the first time I came out of the tunnel and saw that beautiful green ballfield in front of me, lit under the lights, framed by the biggest scoreboard I’d ever seen and forty-thousand screaming fans. Fred McGriff hit a first-inning Grand Slam that day, his second consecutive first-inning slam, and people went batshit. Whether it was the popcorn and sodas or that important moment in baseball history, I was hooked.

We didn’t have a hometown team in Phoenix until 1998, but we got our baseball fix through season tickets to Sun Devil baseball, the occasional Pads game on television, and Vin Scully calling the late Dodgers game on the radio as I went to sleep. In the early days of Sun Devil baseball, I’d be the obnoxious ten-year-old who was just hoping to catch a foul ball. Any shot off the bat that went into the field of play was a mild disappointment for me. I’d look for lefties, because they gave us the best angle at catching a ball, and so I couldn’t care less about right-handed hitters up to bat, even at a late moment in a close game. I learned that if I just waited until the fifth inning to ask for a run for nachos and sodas, I’d have a much better shot at an “okay” than asking in the bottom of the second. I think of these as the years that my dad “tolerated” my presence at games, hoping that things would get better with age. They did.

As I got older, we became more of a team. I lost interest in foul balls by the time I hit high school, and we focused instead on the nuances of the game. We talked situational baseball after every out in every inning. “Would you bunt here?” “What pitch are you throwing in this count with a runner on second?” We kept a scorebook–he’d do the visitors’ offense and I’d do the Sun Devils. In a game with particularly bad umpiring, we’d work on our heckling. He’d look at me after yelling something and ask whether it was a good one or not. I’d give him a so/so signal. We bought sunflower seeds and practiced spitting. I gradually warmed to the idea of jalapeños on my nachos. Going to games was something for just the two of us, and we made it our own.

In our photo books back home, there are about thirteen different photos of me in various uniforms for tee-ball and little league and high school baseball teams. In all those years of playing, my dad never missed a game. He’d show up a little before game time whether we were playing at home or an hour away, whether it was a mild spring or in the dead of the Arizona summer. He’d always bring his fold-up chair, his wide-brimmed straw hat, flip-down sunglasses over his prescription lenses, and a scorebook. He wasn’t the sort to yell or cheer or even acknowledge to me that he was there–but I knew that he was. We’d talk about the game afterward, over dinner. We’d replay situations here and there. If I’d pitched that day, he’d talk pitch selection, strategy, what felt good and what didn’t. He asked more than he told. He still wanted to learn. Baseball was our thing to connect on, the stuff my brother and mother knew a little about, but not on the level that we did.

We built this stuff over sixteen years. From the first time I picked up that plastic red bat to my first Big League ball game to my first coach, our first pitching machine, my first $180 fielding mitt, my last pair of cleats, baseball was our thing. In the last few years, since I left for college, I’ve lost all interest in baseball. Portland doesn’t have a team, for one thing, which makes the Big Leagues much tougher to follow. But more than that, I don’t have someone to watch it with. I’ll grant to my friends that baseball is an infinitely boring sport–there’s more dead time between action than any other conceivable thing that human beings are willing to consider “entertainment.” And that’s why you need somebody with you. Your Dad. To watch the games and keep score, to spit sunflower seeds and talk strategy, to look at girls when you get a little older and he’s finally okay acknowledging that you think about sex more than baseball these days. It’s a perfect game on which to build a relationship. The discoveries you make in baseball are shared experiences–the moments that you remember are more about who you were with, not about what happened on the field.

Last week, a father fell to his death at a Big League ballgame in Texas, trying to catch a souvenir for his six year old son. A couple of days after that, my dad sent me the one-line email that you see at the top of this story. No punctuation, no subject, no capitalization except that one word: Dad. “make sense of this to me,” he said.

I saw a headline in an article on ESPN.com shortly after this tragedy that simply read, “Baseball is Fathers and Sons.”

When you’re a father, you reach for that home run ball for the same reason you buy two pitching machines when your son is struggling at the plate. The same reason you renew your season tickets to college ball year after year. Your father never took an interest in your batting average. He never took you to a ball game. You never sat in the first row of the outfield when you were a boy, and your father sure as hell never leaned over an edge to try and catch a ball for you.

Or maybe he wanted always wanted to, and you always wanted him to, but he never had that chance. Now, with a home run hurtling towards the stands, you have a moment to make that day at the ballgame something your son will always remember. When you’re a Dad, you want to build these memories with your son. And sometimes, all it takes is a home run ball. Even if it looks like it might be a little out of reach… it’s worth it.

Backpacking, Bears, Balance

I was always told not to run too far ahead. You miss the scenery and besides that, there are bears and cougars out there. There are things to see, I’d be told. Things to hear. Instead of striding along with your head down looking for the next step and the one after that, take a breath and smell the air and look around and feel nature. Maybe listen for a bird or the sound of falling water. Focus your eyes on movement in the distance, but stay still. Keep your eyes peeled for slugs and birds, squirrels and deer. They’re out there, but you have to slow down. You have to look. It’s not a race, no it’s not.

We went up to the Olympic National Park to have a look around, not to mow down miles and barge through the finish line. A 13-mile there-and-back trail would give us a marathoner’s distance, and we divided it up to force a strolling pace. The scenery was breathtaking from the first few steps. We crossed the Quinault river and its feeder creeks over and over again, sometimes walking with and against a trickling flow of water. The trail was just wild enough, passing through ferns and over roots and in between the occasional well-cut fallen tree. The forest never really crept in over us, instead shooting up for the sky as though it didn’t care to smother us with shade and color but couldn’t help exploding in thousands of shades of green.

Joe, Rami, Tessa, Kristine and I made up the crew, but if you’d remove Joe we’d be essentially useless in the wild. He was our expert, planning meals, offering advice here and there, scolding us whenever necessary. “The tent should be about fifty feet from the kitchen. Pick a spot and then look up to be sure there isn’t a hanging branch threatening to crash down on you in the middle of the night.” “The fire is the area of the campsite where you spit your toothpaste and dump your cooking water.” “LEAVE NO TRACE!” Joe’s got quite the enviable résumé, with countless trips through the Rockies of Colorado, the canyons of Utah, and the Oregon wilderness. He’s spent time building trails and skiing cliffs and scaling mountains and when he’s at rest, thinking–about what the wild is and what it ought to be to us.

Joe is a big guy with a body like a Division III college running back and a smile like a seven year old at Christmas. He’s thoughtful and deliberate–the sort of person who makes sure to bring everything you’d need for a camping trip, and then a journal and a pen to capture the in-between moments when others are still sleeping and dawn is creeping over the hills and lighting up the water. He’d tell me that he never brings toilet paper because he “hates to pack it out,” and just takes it for granted that you’d know what inevitability that meant, though never explaining what leaves to use or how to grab a clump of moss and use the best of it. There’s an indescribable common sense to the way he moves around, the way he thinks, the way he carries himself. Some of my favorite moments of the hike were behind Joe, matching him stride for stride as he worked his way to the top of a sharp incline. At the end, he’d pause and say “that lunch gave us some good energy!” He’s the sort of personality who develops leadership as you know him–a friend you’d follow even when he doesn’t know quite where he’s going. There’s a calm to him that others don’t have. That’s something you can get behind.

We ventured out without a map, but with a pretty clear sense of where we were headed. It was a straight trail to the Enchanted Valley and back, and we’d decided ahead of time that we would make camp at the third post, near Pyrite Creek. From there, we could get 6 miles into the Valley and back without our packs, and then load up for the trip to camp 2–our last night in the wild. Night one was great. We settled into camp with a few hours of daylight remaining, and had plenty of time to pump water from the river, rinse our feet, gather firewood, and begin dinner. Rami treated us to a reading of The Hobbit, complete with a pretty spot-on Gollum voice. Joe spied a black bear lumbering down to the river for a drink, and we all hustled over to the edge of the creek for a better view. We saw birds and squirrels here and there, but this was a big encounter with nature–the first wild bear for almost all of us.

From that point on, I looked for bears everywhere on every part of the trail. I’d hope that a fallen tree with two pieces of bark jutting out of its broken stump was a black bear with perky ears. I tried to will a bear out of the woods at the far bank and into the same river where I was cooling my feet. At every turn, I thought about coming upon a bear, the startle that would greet both of us, and the birth of some fantastical amicable relationship between man and beast that I could share with people at cocktail parties for the rest of my life. There was really only one time that I hoped I wouldn’t run into a big bear, and that was when I had to take a shit in the woods.

When I was about eight years old, my dad took me on my first hiking trip that would take us far enough from a bathroom that we’d have to do some digging to take a shit. We were up in the Four Peaks wilderness just east of Tempe. I imagine the light was getting then and the air was beginning to cool when I innocently told him I’d have to make a poopie. (I don’t know if I actually called it this, but I seriously doubt I was throwing around the word “shit” until I was at least 11). Here began one of the more important teaching moments for father and son in the wild. “Alright, let’s go,” he said. He walked me over to his pack where he’d stashed a shovel and a roll of TP. As usual, he’d point at the items and say, “Now what do you think this is for?” as a way to make me think through the scenario on my own. As I was playing through things in my head, we walked up into the deeper woods and he told me the rules:

1. “Get yourself far enough away that you can’t see anybody. And then walk another two minutes. You don’t want someone coming up on you while you’re pooping and they sure as hell don’t want to see you either.”
2. “Find a spot with a good view. You might be here a while and you want something nice to look at. Don’t put yourself behind a tree. See if you can find a high spot and look out over a mountain. It’ll be the best looking shit you’ve ever had.”
3. “Dig a hole that’s deep enough.” This is maybe the most important rule.
4. “When you’re done, it should look like you were never there.”

Near twenty years later and I’m still thinking these things through. He had a way of  making things sink in, often by giving terrible and memorable examples of what might happen if you don’t do things the way that you should, which is the way he said that you should. For about five years, every time we saw a place where someone had left some TP behind, he’d point it out and say that person didn’t follow the last rule. My dad never said anything about wildlife in the process. I think he just assumed that looking around for people meant looking around for animals, and that one would have to be pretty stupid to let a bear catch him with his pants down. The likelihood seemed low, but this is the sort of stupid shit you think about when you’re in that vulnerable spot in the woods.

Fortunately, we didn’t run into another bear until the next day in the Enchanted Valley. Snow melt was falling down the mountains all around us and the sound of the river couldn’t be escaped. The sky was as blue as you could hope in a rainforest. We were lucky with the weather all weekend. Other campers were stopped on the trail, looking at a hairy black rock not fifty yards away across a field of grass. We got closer and saw that it was a bear, out from the woods to forage for a mid-day snack here and there. Back in the tree line, another thirty yards or so, we could see a little cub hanging back and eating his own share of grubs in between long stares at the strange humans paying so much attention to him. The bear was remarkable in its passiveness. People walked back and forth and he hardly looked up. Kristine snapped about forty photos of a black lump. Two turned out to be really nice. Pretty much worth it.

Still riding the high from our sighting, we almost flew past a couple of young elk on the return trail–slightly more skittish but still pretty comfortable in the belief that we weren’t there to harm them. It’s a National Park. Their territory after all.

You could consider the trip a great success. We feasted on oatmeal, curries, peanutbutterandjellynutella tortillas, sausages, and beef tacos. We saw more wildlife than humans. We drank more water than fell on our heads. The nights were cool and breezy but our sleeping bags were warm and cozy. There was time for self- reflection, storytelling, sharing, and learning. I’ve always loved hiking because you can let yourself fall behind the pack or run ahead of the pace or just let yourself hang with the group. You can share stories and look at the sights with your friends or you can hurry ahead and make time for yourself to see and feel the power of things around you. When you head out into the woods, it’s impossible not to find–in yourself–a new balance.