I’m happy to wear a COVID mask, having gone through life with a grim mug due to my childhood spent listening to sermons about the End Times, and the mask lets people imagine I’m smiling, and so everyone is friendlier. I’ve tried to smile into a mirror and it looks like the leer on a landlord’s face as he throws the penniless tenant out into the snow. My mother hoped I’d be a teacher but I would’ve terrified the children so I went into radio. A good move.
I went to the dentist’s office last week and was astonished by the photos of smiling faces on the wall — how do people manage to do this? A grin that shows upper teeth, even gums! So the mask makes me normal. I may get a flesh-colored one with a smiling mouth on it and wear it after COVID is history.
This dental practice is mostly female and I, who’d never met a woman dentist before, was struck by the thought that women should’ve taken over dentistry long ago. I’ve had seventy years of dentistry, my mouth is a dental museum, the Smithsonian has shown interest in acquiring it, and the gentlemen dentists I’ve encountered worked on my mouth as if I were an inanimate machine, a defective lawn mower, and pain was of little consequence.
Every one of us, when we sit in the dentist’s chair, becomes a seven-year-old child, and Dr. Choi and Judy the hygienist had a light touch, were caring and tender and addressed me as “dear,” which mostly wiped away memories of the End Times and the Judgment. I wrote them a limerick:
Dr. Choi and the hygienist Judy
Are out to improve patients’ beauty
But in my case,
With my tragic face,
There was no plastic surgeon on duty.
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An hour at the clinic and I walked home feeling that here, amid the viral plague and climate change and the death knell of democracy, was a sign of actual progress in the world. Women taking over a male preserve. This, along with YouTube and Wikipedia and the iPhone with the map app that if you text “stationery store” in the box, it will show you instantly the closest ones and if you press “Directions” will guide you step by step to whichever one you choose.
When you grow up hearing End Times talk, it discourages you from imagining self-improvement, but thanks to fundamentalism I went into the field of comedy, based on the principle that “Life is a series of sinking ships and comedy is a life preserver,” and I found a style of zany fatalism that went well with my coroner’s face. I played a lovesick cowboy on the radio and a mystified private eye and a hopeless novelist and told stories about a small town populated by reticent Lutherans, and this so-called career stumbled along well enough, and now on the verge of old age, I look around and am encouraged by the advance of civilization.
Using my phone I can transmit a photograph of my immediate surroundings to distant friends, an enormous advance over the old Kodak Brownie and the week’s wait for film to be developed and then mailing a picture to a friend. This little device, developed by teams of technowizards for the sheer challenge of it, has enormous humanistic value, sending a clear color image of a Greek diner on 23rd Street in New York, the cook in white, my plate of eggs and corned beef hash, the traffic beyond the front window, to a friend living in the woods of northern Minnesota. It takes five seconds to flash this snapshot and she shoots me back a picture of snowy fields and a lonesome pine. Not a word is spoken, but two realities are exchanged.
I look at her picture and think of Robert Bly’s poems about Minnesota winter, his love of silence, something he said about being nourished by sorrow. Thanks to my sorrowful face, I have few friends but I treasure them all, knowing how hard it must be to converse with a sphinx, and I maintain a lighthearted conversation for their benefit and doing that, I cheer myself up.
I look forward to 2022. I’m rejoining my old gospel quartet to sing bass, I’m writing a book called Comic Medications, I have a wife who is a necessity in my life like coffee and music and Google and metoprolol. Happy New Year to all. Hang in there. Lighten up. Brush twice daily and don’t forget to floss.
Garrison Keillor Prairie Home Productions