Thursday, August 30, 2007

Al Dente

Some years ago- never mind how long precisely-(as Ishmael would put it,) I found myself at the USC dental school, hopeful of synchronizing a teaching schedule with some repair work. There was a kind of camaraderie among us, teacher to teacher as it were, and such was the nature of this connective tissue that each time I opened my mouth, one or more of those in attendance would stop his or her task and call out, "Hey, you gotta see this!" whereupon a clutch of other student dentists and their supervisors would drop their Gracey curettes and swarm in for a look.

"We really hate to see you go," one of the supervisors said toward the time when my smile was achieving some serious presence. "You have so much wrong that you've become a walking textbook for all of us."

It was about this time when the late lamented poet and good friend, Claire Rabe, told me, "You mustn't misunderstand what women want from you. They want--"

"Yes?" I said.

"--they want technique that will help them become better writers."

"Oh," I said.

And at the USC Dental School, there were at least two women who were after me for my occlusal surfaces.

But I came away with a technique that had been ingrained into their working psyche and to the degree that I can stick to it, occlusal surfaces and all, it works.

Dentists, I learned, are encouraged to divide their working day into fifteen-minute blocks called units. Somewhere in every dental school, and possibly the broom closet in some dental offices, is the dental equivalent of the Flat-Rate Book auto mechanics use to guide their billing and work ethic practices. X hours for a lube job, Y hours for a rebuilt transmission, Z hours for installing a timing chain. The hour total is multiplied by the hourly rate, to which are added such refinements as materials and hazardous material removal. The result is the grand total.

Same thing with the dentist. X hours for a crown times the hourly rate plus materials. The results for mechanics and dentists are the same. Ouch!

Okay, so I began breaking my day down into units: fifteen minutes to read email, fifteen minutes to work on a short story, fifteen minutes to read pages from a book the review of which is already several units late, a unit to pay bills, a unit of time off (see, I even factored that part of the process), a unit to read a new student paper, a unit to formulate comments...

Sounds lovely, and there are actually times when it works. I got, for instance, a unit in this morning on a short story I'm working on; I got two units in on reading the California Vehicle Code Handbook prior to my need to renew my driver's license. Feeling thus expansive, I went back to the short story, which was a big mistake because I burned about three units going over things and fine-tuning the text as far as I'd come (which is the way I like to work anyway), and now I have to deal with the consequences of the profligacy of my actions. If there were ever a more basic demonstration of karma than that, I'd like to hear about it.

What it comes down to is the sound of a man who has been spoiled rotten doing things he enjoys, and his perpetual rush to keep up with the so-so stuff that has become a cultural albatross.


Kelli Anne said...

this is fantastic. i've always loved dentists for some odd reason. maybe i'll put a dentist in my next short story... i hope i am able to read yours soon.

John Eaton said...

One of my old premed buddies went on to dent school, Shelly.

This is the same guy who brought a box 'o snakes to our reptile class, boots still muddy from the swamp, grinnin' like a happy possum, and announced with great vigor, "Here's my snakes."

Dentistry and time, and the mechanics of motion.

A gem among gems,

John :)

lettuce said...

that time unit thing makes me feel a bit queasy.

maybe you should replace your profile pic. with one which shows your teeth?

Anonymous said...

Shelly - I once had a seductive brush with the type of lit crit those French do - psych, literature, and Marxism rolled into one. Found it to be great fun. One notion I (mis)remember is the concept of lacunae. And I must say, the tell-tale window in your blog is wide open this morning!
Critique is seductive indeed but don't sell yourself short - It is actually INSIGHT women are after from you... no small matter to receive or to give...
- Karen.