Part II - The Test
Sunday, January 2, 2000
n the 15 or so years I worked as a cartoonist, my home--or at least the workspace—has always been a shrine to the Chaos Theory. Mountains of scratch paper, with half-realized ideas and sketches. Randomly cubby-holed rejected original cartoons. Dog-eared copies of Cosmo, Glamour, Playboy, Haper's, and The New Yorker, which I routinely mined for inspiration. But last summer, after I made the decision to return to my first career--dentistry--a new chaos overtook my home. During the four months preparing for Part II of the National Board Dental Examination, I had acquired and added reams of outdated dental textbooks, mutilated copies of sample past national board exams, and color-coded note cards. Sheaves of academic notes wafted about the house whenever a breeze blew in from Lake Superior.
During most of the summer I seldom left my house—typically, if I did, it was only when the conditions were particularly favorable for guaranteed action on my favorite smallmouth river. As the early September exam date neared, by pacing myself, like a long-distance runner, studying three or four hours each afternoon, I hoped that by the day of the test, all the junk I had thereby absorbed would be mentally in place, and everything would come together in a perfect harmony. And then Cybill Shepherd called.
It seemed that the producer of a new afternoon television talk show--dubbed "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," in a nod to the self-help relationship book of the same name--happened to have seen in the Los Angeles Times one of my syndicated cartoons, a single panel called Single Slices. Apparently, she thought I would make a perfect guest panelist for an upcoming show. The topic, "Who Needs A Husband, Anyway," was inspired by the recent Time magazine cover story, "Flying Solo-Single Women and Their New Status." Success in the cartooning business, as in most endeavors, often requires a large amount of dumb luck. In this case an invitation to appear on television had simply dropped in my lap. It's hard to ignore such divinity. Would such an occurrence jump-start my cartooning career? Doubtful. Never the less, without seeming overtly spiritual, I did feel a certain amount of karma here. And the irony wasn't lost on me: just as I'm about to make a monumental career change, something comes along to attempting to possibly dissuade me.
Sony wanted to fly me out there on Tuesday for the Wednesday taping, slating my Duluth return late Thursday evening. The problem? My board exam was scheduled for the next day, Friday. Would this put into jeopardy all the preparing I had done to pass this test? I mulled it over for a couple days and the urge to do the show became stronger and stronger. It was not simply the lure of appearing on television. That holds absolutely no appeal, but for some reason it was not to be ignored: it seemed bigger than that. On the other hand, I thought a round-trip, cross-country jaunt might be the ideal opportunity for some serious, uninterrupted cramming. So off I went.
I arrived at LAX late afternoon and had been able to jam in about seven hours of studying en route. At the airport I was met up by the Sony car and whisked through rush-hour traffic to the cozy Luxe Summit hotel in Brentwood/Bel Air. By the time I checked in and unpacked it was already, by Duluth Time, eight o'clock. It had already been a long day and I needed some air, and something to eat. Within walking distance of the hotel I found a funky seafood place, seated myself at a corner table on the porch, unwound with a glass of the house Chianti, and leisurely savored that night's specialty—a lovely seafood lasagna. During the course of the meal I could not help eavesdropping on the table next to me, where two very attractive college-aged girls were seated, gabbing. After dinner the three of us-- the sole diners on the porch--joined in conversation. They were eager and enthusiastic, on the cusp of discovering the world, about to set off for college in New York City. What could I be but the wise, older, worldly sage? So to this defenseless, captive audience I spun my well worn tales of adventure and daring. Exotic locales and wide-eyed bewilderment. As is so much easier with strangers, life histories are revealed in synopsis. My plans to return to dentistry were mentioned and questioned. I told them how precarious a career of cartooning had recently become, especially for me now, the distributor of my cartoon, the Los Angeles Times, having just been purchased, along with its features, by the Chicago Tribune. My cartoon panel, Single Slices, could be dropped at a whim from syndication and my most reliable piece of income yanked from under me. It was all predictable rhetoric until one of the girls mentioned that her father was in the syndicate business. There is only one other newspaper syndicate in Los Angeles that being Creators, founded and run by Rick Newcombe. I asked her if Rick was her father. He was, and a chill went up the back of my neck. Another factor suddenly surfaced in my karmic cross-country jaunt.
In the early darkness with the smell of the ocean thick in the air, I strolled past the gated homes along Sunset Boulevard back to the hotel and was in bed by eight-thirty. I was asleep before I could even begin to ponder all that had happened that day. Embracing my jet lag, I awoke the next morning at four-thirty, fired up a pot of coffee, and began to study. By the time the Sony car arrived to pick me up for the taping I had been able to squeeze in another seven hours of studying.
The three hours that followed are a sort of blur. There was a little time in make up, after which I just kind of wandered around the studio. In the "Green Room," which wasn't green but simply a large, ceilingless room with some food, several over-stuffed couches, partitioned just off-set. There were also a couple televisions, from which emanated inexplicably the show's theme song in a continuous irritating loop. I introduced myself to the other panelists and we engaged in quiet, polite, tittering conversation. Production people came in with their clipboards and headsets and went over some of the questions Cybill was likely to ask us. We were miked-up and escorted onto the set and the live audience. Across from me sat two radio talk show veterans: a woman who felt no female was complete without a husband (who was currently in the throngs of a divorce proceeding) and a man from a conservative California think tank who looked just like you would expect a representative from a conservative think tank to look. On the pro-single side of the set, sitting next to me, on the couch, was Claudette, a vibrant black woman from Houston--an author who was recently divorced and digging it immensely. To me it seemed odd that a cartoonist was selected as the fourth member of this panel, but since my cartoon was about being single, and the fact that I myself had never been married, well, I guess that made me an expert.
Cybill strode onto the set, a bit of banter ensued, and the cameras rolled. An hour and a half later it was over, we all stood and congratulated each other, and the cameras stopped rolling. From my dressing room I collected my box of bath products- a gift from Sony, hopped in the awaiting black Caddie, and proceeded through a maze of buildings toward the outside world.
Forty-five minutes through rush-hour traffic I was back at the Luxe Summit. It was late, I was drained, so the rest of the evening was spent in my hotel room, in front of the television with a can of cashews and a couple Heinekens, and I was asleep by ten. The next morning the car picked me up at 5:30, ferried me down an already busy I-405 to the airport. Eight hours of flight time, another eight hours of studying, and I was glad to be home. That evening included a casual perusal of a couple oral pathology atlases and another early to bed. After a dreamless sleep I spent the morning with a pot of coffee, going over the five or six pages of notes I had amassed during the proceeding months, attempting to regain my rhythm and organize data.
America has always been enamored with trivia, from The $64,000 Question to Jeopardy to Trivial Pursuit to Isaac Azimov's Super Quiz in the daily newspaper, championing the direct relationship between one's ability to regurgitate arcane information and the possession of knowledge. So, on that rainy, blustery, unseasonably cold early September afternoon it was with oozing trepidation that I entered the local Sylvan Testing Center to take Part II of the National Board Dental Examination—the dental profession's version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
The Sylvan Computer Center testing room contained five pc's. It was tiny and windowless, partitioned from the one lone Sylvan employee by a complete wall of glass. Video cameras were prominent in each corner of the ceiling. Apparently every testing session was captured in its entirety on video, I can only imagine to be reviewed later at some remote location. (Oh, THAT would be a good job.) I was fingerprinted and given five sheets--count 'em--of scratch paper, and ushered to my computer.
Despite memorizing at least four past exams, the majority of the tested material was new to me, but its nature was not. Predictably, the exam was filled with the type of questions I had expected: "By what frequency does cleft palate appear on the left side versus the right?" "You walk into your operatory and your new patient is standing against the wall with out-stretched arms making the sign of the cross with his index fingers. Which is the most appropriate response?" "Which of the following metastasizes LEAST?" "Which is least like to metastasize from the patella?" "Which of the following is found to occur more frequently in bald men than skinny-legged women?" Most answers I could reduce to two choices. This being Serious Business, I could not let my irritation at trivia distract me, but some times I could not prevent my eyes from rolling towards the ceiling.
I was asked to differentiate between various osteoadenomyxlmyomal, amelomucomatoidal, and fibroadamantoblastomical neoplasms; recognize the specific situations in which mast cells, neutrophils, mucoceles, would be identifiable, and how they differed from half-mast cells, partisanphils, and Monica Seles. All the nightmare questions that were laid bare in the color-coded Dental Deck flash cards and past national board exams predictably appeared here, with no apologies or noticeable embarrassment. I was asked to dredge from the furthest dank, dark recesses of my brain ridiculous information that would begin to be forgotten the moment I exited the testing site, never again to see the light of conscious thought. An exam of this deviousness is simply an exercise in willpower. Dentistry…how bad do you want it? How over-educated are you willing to become, even if it's only for a couple weeks?
At 1 p.m. the computer blinked on. I emerged eight hours later, my eyes bloodshot, my body just plain shot. It was dark and dismal and still raining. I picked up a frozen Sammy's pizza on the way home, watched some lame Friday night television and went to bed. Saturday I awoke early, had a nice breakfast of banana/ walnut waffles, juice, and Italian sausage, and for a couple hours paged through Shafer/Hine/Levy. The test was in three hours. It was the case studies portion.
That morning, Saturday, I was greeted by a different Sylvan employee, given the same five--count 'em--sheets of scratch paper and led to my computer. Case studies are a much more valid method of determining one's competence, but if the future of the national boards should lie with computers, the quality of the images must improve. Sylvan's monitor screens are set up at 800 x 600 pixels, which, speaking as one who makes his living by creating computer graphics, is a totally insufficient resolution for critically assessing photographs. (Even at 1024 x 768 photos are less-than-photo quality on a computer monitor). At one point I was shown a series of intraoral color photos and asked to name the probably cause of the apparent enamel anomaly. Nothing was apparent. The teeth were white. The same problem occurred when I was asked to diagnose caries by examining a set of bitewing x-rays. I could not detect any caries, and "no caries" was not among the available answers. So much for the thousands of x-rays I had previously interpreted while in private practice.
It was a short conversation. Rick's daughter, Sara, had mentioned meeting me and had related our after dinner conversation, and apparently had been bugging him to call me. Rick told me he had always been a fan of Single Slices and if the Chicago Tribune did decide to drop my cartoon from its list of syndicated features, Creators Syndicate would be happy to pick it up. It was a very generous and kind offer, and he told me to simply keep him informed. Forces from beyond, it seemed, were conspiring to keep me cartooning.
About ten days later, through the car window, I checked my mailbox. A lone envelope lay waiting. It was from the American Dental Association. I calmly opened it to find I had passed the test. A cool 78. (75 was passing.) No congratulations. No accolades. Just the results. The envelope was tucked over the visor and I continued down the dirt road that ran in front of my house. You see, while it was late in the season, there was still lots of prime smallmouth fishing to be had before I moved to Minneapolis.