Sunday, September 06, 1998

Science Marches On

Labor Day is here, and Just Plain Harris returns from summer vacation! Our first class of the new school year is science.

Let's begin with the team of scientists from Canada, America, Britain, and Norway, who have been working in Oslo, Norway, exhuming the bodies of six miners from an Arctic cemetery. Why? Because these miners died of the deadly Spanish flu back in 1918, and the researchers believe that fragments of the flu virus may be frozen in the lungs and other organs of the miners. So they're going to dig these guys up, thaw them out, and try to isolate the virus.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the Spanish flu was the worst pandemic of this century, taking the lives of between 20 and 40 million people? Do we really want to thaw this virus out and give it a chance to kill again?

You say I'm overreacting. Then why is this crew supplied with eight tons of high-tech gear, including space suits with special breathing masks? Has no one seen the movie, "Outbreak," or read the book, "Hot Zone"? Don't we have enough diseases to conquer in our modern life that we don't need to dig one up from 70 years ago?

If they really want to experiment with diseases, I'd suggest stopping by the waiting area of any pharmacy, as I did recently. What a soothing thing it is to be told to have a seat while they fill your prescription, only to find yourself sitting with a dozen other sick people who have god-knows-what wrong with them. The only thing you can be really sure of is that half of them have something easily communicable.

That's why I spent the next 15 minutes strolling through the drugstore, glancing at the shelves, amazed at some of the real advances in over-the-counter medicine. Such as clear calamine lotion.

Remember when, as a kid, you got some poison ivy on you, and before you could even begin to scratch yourself silly, Mom would lather on several gallons of pink calamine lotion? This was particularly galling as a teenager, because there's nothing more appealing to the opposite sex than dried pink splotches all over your arms and legs -- splotches that virtually spell out "contagious!" And just in case the visual didn't disgust everyone, the lotion was nicely aromatic, too. Kinda like week-old cottage cheese. But now, thanks to years of lab work and thousands of development dollars, calamine lotion is clear and unscented (though for you nostalgia nuts, it's still available in the classic pink). So go ahead and roll around in some poison oak!

That's a nice advancement, and I applaud them. It's no cancer cure, but it's nice. Next, I want the new scientific geniuses to help in the area of dentistry. In particular, I'm hoping they can advance the oral business a little further away from its Marquis De Sade roots.

I have roots on the mind because I just had my first root canal done. Some aspects of dental technology have progressed enormously, like the new kind of cavity-filling amalgam that won't set off the x-ray machine at the airport. Plus, there are lasers and more powerful bonding agents, and I have no problem with any of those. Happy to have them, in fact.

Unfortunately, the basics of dentistry behind these newfangled gizmos have not changed. Dr. Oral is still in there poking, probing, and scraping with long, sharp implements. I still feel like Dustin Hoffman as I sit there looking up at Laurence Olivier, DDS. The light is still positioned so that no matter how your move your head, it's always glaring hypnotically in your eyes. And it's so reassuring to have the lead vest placed across your torso while they x-ray your head, which gets no protection at all. I notice that the dental personnel still depart the room for that little radioactive interval, leaving my brain free to absorb as much of that spectrum as possible.

But you haven't really lived the dental experience until you've had the pleasure of the use of the dental dam.

Until now, I had only heard the expression "dental dam" once before. I think it was late one night when I flicked past the show "LoveLine" on MTV, and they had a question (more explicit than I care to repeat) about safe sex for alternative lifestyles. Now, here I was in a completely asexual situation -- it better be -- having this rubber-and-metal device imposed on my teeth and gums.

In case you're not forming a good mental image here, just imagine someone with their jaw wired shut, then yanked open, and a mouse pad slapped over their gums. The dental assistant explained that this new torture apparatus was there so they could isolate the area where they were going to do the root canal while keeping the chemicals and other effluvia away from the rest of my mouth and throat. Okay, good idea, but isn't this the job that used to be performed by that hook-shaped saliva sucking thing? Oh, I got that, too.

Sounds like just the situation to put you at ease in the dental chair, doesn't it? Wait, don't answer yet! I also was given safety goggles to wear -- I think that was a precaution in case he had to do some light arc welding between my molars -- and several of those cotton cigarette butts they shove under your lips for whatever reason. Even if I had wanted to know, I couldn't ask any more questions because the damn dam prevented me from forming words other than "qznoolf" and "glphrmtnwphhht."

This is progress? Why is dentistry so far behind the "let's make it easy for the patient" curve? An opthomologist can take a laser and correct someone's nearsightedness in an hour on an out-patient basis. My friend Andrew can have his hernia repaired in the morning and still be back on his carphone to do more business deals before noontime. Cattle steroids can help Mark McGwire break Roger Maris' record. Why does it take three hours and two visits for a dentist to scrub my roots clean?

Now I understand why Grandpa liked having the ability to take his teeth out and put them in a glass every night. Believe me, the thought did cross my mind during the second session. Go ahead, rip them all out and make me a PoliGrip spokesman. Then, when they need work, I'll drop them off as if you ran a one-hour photo place, while I do some other errands. When you're done, I'll pick them up, slap them in, and be on my way. Then you can leave the dental dam to Monica.

I still think the stain on the dress is calamine lotion.