The Journey Back- the Final Leg

OK...so now I am a dentist again. Now what?

At the time of this writing, I am employed as a dentist in a large office in an inner- tier south Minneapolis suburb. There are four other dentists, a host of assistants, hygienists, and office personnel. It is a beehive with blinking computer screens, phones held to ears by shoulders, files being retrieved, sorted through, and re-filed, and people scurrying from one operatory to another. A tie is mandatory attire and tepid elevator music softly wafts through the office like stale air. It signifies a polar opposite from the loosely regimented life I had constructed for myself during the last 15 years or so as a cartoonist and illustrator, when my face was always unshaven and raucous alternative rock and roll fueled my creative juices. People commonly ask me if I am excited to be back practicing dentistry. In a perfect world, I tell them, in order to live my life as I imagine it to be lived, I would not have had to resort to dentistry. Dentistry is simply a job, albeit a job that pays better than most. But it is also a job that I have embraced with as much positive energy as I am able to  muster. You do whatcha gotta do.

But cutting a three-day chunk out of my cartooning week has thrown a wrench into my former routine. I am still able to work around my DDS'ing, successfully giving my regular cartooning obligations the attention they require, but anything beyond that takes a serious commitment. As a full-time cartoonist the majority of my time was spent creating new projects that had the potential of taking my career to a new level: such as creating new cartoon strips for syndication or trying to convince the New Yorker magazine of my ability to provide consistent appropriate cartoon material. Projects like these were all consuming. During these bouts of activity there was no "free time." Every spare moment was filled. The mornings would be used to formulate ideas and afternoons and evenings would be spent putting them on paper. It was an enervating process that sapped my soul and would leave me spent. The usual result was rejection, some with a stock message along the lines, "Thank you for your submission, but we are unable to use it at this time." A hand-written note with some measure of empathy and encouragement might accompany other rejection notices. Despite the long odds of success, this is what the typical journeyman cartoonist's life is composed of.

Then there were the more mundane duties of pestering and schmoozing newspaper and magazine editors, discovering greeting card companies that were willing to consider new material, scouring the Internet for possible job opportunities, and following various leads from wherever they would pop up. Gone now are those leisurely days of completing my regular cartooning obligations, which are primarily my daily syndicated Single Slices and various In-Fisherman assignments, when I could manipulate my schedule to include a quick four or five-day camping trip or extended stay visiting friends, and still effortlessly meet my deadlines.

It was May 2000 that I began in earnest to re-obtain my license to practice dentistry, the first hurdle being the National Boards Part 2 that I took in the fall. The regional boards were held in early December, three months later, which I passed, but not without cause for concern. My prophy was judged as unacceptable. Nineteen points baby. That didn't leave me a lot of room for error in calculus removal. The operative portion proved uneventful. All that behind me, for the first time in eight months I was finally able to take a break from thinking about dentistry, outside of thoughts of employment—the final leg of my Journey Back. With the Christmas holiday gaining momentum, even if I had wanted to bull forward towards the next step, it would have been an ordeal of futility. So I rolled into the New Year single-minded and refreshed.

First things first: get my license and actually grasp it in my previously ink-stained hands. My first conversation with the Minnesota Board of Dentistry was classic, it followed exactly the thread of retribution and punitive undertones that have accosted me during my entire journey back. It went something like this:

"Hi. I just passed the boards and would like obtain my license to practice."

"OK, we will send you the form and you send us a check."

"I have the form in front of me. So I just fill it out and send a check for $140?"

"That's right."

"I'm curious, will I receive the same number as my previous license?"

"You've been licensed before?"

"Correctomundo."

"How long ago?"

"Eleven years."

"In that case, the fee will be a bit higher."

"How much higher?"

"Let's see...instead of ff$140 it will be, um…$1260."

According to the Minnesota Dental law I was required to pay fees for the years my licensed had lapsed plus a 50% penalty, up to five years. It was, by the profession, one last blatantly punitive poke in the eye of any dentist with the audacity to have left the profession, with thoughts there might just perhaps be a better life elsewhere. It seemed so transparent. It only reinforced my initial intuition, way back in April, that professional egotism is at the core
in making the task of re-obtaining a license such a difficult process. I am being chastised, "Baaaaaaaaaaaaaad dentist."

"I repent! I repent! Waive my fee!" I smoldered.

But they were not done with their eye-poking yet. Instead of having five years to complete my continuing education credits, I had two years. Again, according to the by-laws, when a license has been terminated, the continuing education credit period never the less continues and, upon its reinstatement, picks up in its regular cycle. In other words, if I had waited one more year, I would have had the unpalatable task of obtaining my entire 75 hours in one year, yet if I had postponed my return to dentistry yet another year, I would have had the entire five years to accumulate my continuing education credits. It was totally, and illogically arbitrary.

That first contact with the Board regarding my licensure prompted me to contact Marshall Shraggs, the current President of the Minnesota Board of Dentistry. He turned out to be a surprisingly reasonable man and empathetic listener. He was unfamiliar with the statutes that applied to my situation and was at a complete loss in explaining their supposed function as part of the dental by-laws. But there was nothing anyone could do for me, he added. The by-laws could only be amended by the State Legislature. The snotty profession had thought of everything.

It was shortly thereafter that I acquired employment: two days a week. For the first couple days I just watched. I was instructed on the charting procedures. I wandered the hallway, occasionally poking my head into an operatory to see what was going on. Sometimes I grew bored and retreated to the staff lounge and did crossword puzzles. Eventually it was agreed that I should be turned loose. In some manner management decided that my assistant was to be Jean, who was going to be brought in from some other office.

When I mentioned that I was going to working with Jean, my fellow officemates nodded, as if it could only be so. "Jean will keep things in order," I was commonly told. And as such it was. She proved to be perfectly competent and organized. It didn't take long for her to be completely comfortable speaking her mind, which was fine with me. There was much I was going to learn from her, and I wanted to keep the lines of communication unencumbered. Slowly I grew into the job. Procedural subtleties seeped back into my repertoire. Jean adapted to any peculiarities I demonstrated, which was for the most part anything that she couldn't get me to do differently. She still rolls her eyes or gives me a passing glare when I disrupt her efforts at maintaining maximum efficiency and organization, but I fear that is a gap that will forever remain.

The one thing I have found most surprising is how much I am enjoying my newfound interaction with the human race. As an artist I led a lonely and sequestered life, often times an almost a hermit-like existence. Sometimes entire days would pass without talking to or seeing another person. When I did leave my house on the North Shore of Lake Superior it was often to go fishing, where again I would spend more hours alone walking rivers or paddling my canoe. The dog my only companion. Over the years I grew to genuinely embrace this solitude. Now, with my new life, everyday I am confronted with a continuous stream of more or less a random sampling of humanity. Maybe it's the latent hitchhiker in me or the traveler who prefers to travel alone, but I love to listen to strangers talk about their lives. Or maybe it's the cartoonist in me, whose success depends on the concoction of plausible imaginary conversations for imaginary characters. Maybe I should have been a shrink. Not surprisingly, I am especially enjoying my patients with whom I am able to talk about music, books, art, traveling, and fishing. These are the people, who over time, I hope will come to characterize my practice.

During my brief two-month pre-regional board dental reorientation at the dental school, I talked freely about my career change with my patients, and the time I had spent away from dentistry. While I am still more than happy to relate my situation, now in the private sector I do so a bit more selectivity. The difference is that my patients at the dental school were comfortably aware that they were seeking care at a teaching institution. In the sphere of private practice people were not so quick to cut me slack. In most cases that deal with patient anxiety, in whatever form it would take, unrepentant charm can usually be relied upon to soothe the situation. Sometimes only humor works.

One particular patient comes to mind on whom I was to prepare a tooth for an anterior crown. She was young and attractive, trim, tanned, well coifed, and self-admittedly vain. Physically she resembled Cameron Diaz. Immediately upon being seated she began to ask a lot of questions about my qualifications and as they were answered she became noticeably more and more ill at ease. I asked her directly if her confidence in me had begun to wane. She nodded. I then told her to keep me informed during the course of the procedure as to whether or not her level of confidence changed: a down-turned thumb if it was ebbing, and a thumbs up if I was scoring points. Several times during the procedure I light-heartedly sampled her confidence level and as her time in the chair neared its end, she seemed somewhat more relaxed. As I left the operatory while Jean was to create and fit the temporary crown, I told Cameron that I would return in about five minutes to check Jean's handiwork and would be prepared for a final confidence assessment. When I did return I received a two-thumbs up. She mentioned, in fact, that she might like me to crown the other three anterior teeth. Actually, I couldn't take all the credit for her turn around. I think it was mostly because she left the office with such a nice looking temporary, which was even more esthetic than the original tooth and a total surprise to her.

Occasionally a patient will be familiar with my syndicated cartoon or, more often, with my work for In-Fisherman magazine and seem to be pleasantly surprised. (No one has yet admitted knowing me from my cartoons in Playboy.) At this point I am comfortable as a dentist. I am comfortable with my patients, and am continuing to fine-tune the various procedures. My cartooning deadlines loom larger these days, but I am adhering to them. An idea for a new cartoon strip, which has been bouncing around in my head for much of the year continues to come together little by little. I'm not fishing nearly enough, in my own estimation, but then I'm not living in Duluth, where my van was always packed and pointed into the woods. The big change, of course, is not being able to spend my winters in Baja, Mexico, to reside in my sweet second-floor cuarto with its veranda strung with Christmas lights, at the comfy Posada Señor Mañana, a half-hour from one of my favorite places on Earth—my secret dive spot, full of groupers, snappers, clown hawkfish, lobsters, and diablo moray eels; ten minutes from Playa Palmilla, where I could launch the kayak into the azure Sea of Cortez to paddle amongst the migrating gray whales, dragging a fishing line behind, playing in the waves.

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