Writings & Whatnot by Rob Hill
And that reminds me of the time I nearly cracked the secret of the universe while hallucinating in a dentist’s chair. I wasn’t there for a serious operation, just a filling that needed to be replaced. After strapping the mask over my nose that would pipe in the nitrous oxide, the dentist courteously explained in some detail what he intended to do, but all I heard was the song playing behind him. The last fairly lucid thought I had was “I didn’t know Hendrix did a cover of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’…” then I climbed into my bathysphere and descended into the roiling wet clouds, where oddly-shaped bubble creatures floated past, peering curiously at me through a porthole in the hull of my craft.
As the procedure commenced it occurred to me that this particular dentist’s voice sounded exactly like that of every other dentist I’ve had occasion to lean back for. Sure, one might expect the terminology to be similar, but these were even the same mumbled asides, even the same random off-key hummings. I’ve had several dentists over the years of varying ages in different parts of the country. Yet at this moment they were all one and the same. A dentist archetype. The conversation between him and his assistant was identical to every conversation between every dentist and assistant that has ever taken place. Fragments of dialogue wafted into my ear, each triggering bouts of deja vu. A tricky procedure described as “heroic.” A gruesome hatchet injury once encountered in dental school. I could even picture the setting, a cabin stocked with lumber somewhere up north. I’ve heard this dialogue all before.
I then understood that the Dental Experience is something recorded on a tape and replayed every time the patient reclines in the dentist’s chair. There is nothing to fear, the hypnotic tape loop reassures me, because everything is familiar. This is all routine and your well-being is in good hands. You’ve been here before and you will be here again.
And this led me to reflect on the nature of control. Clearly I was not the one in control of this situation. I willingly handed over the reins fifteen minutes ago (or was it three hours?) when I stepped into this office. The dentist could, on a whim, swing a sledgehammer at my jaw and there was little I could do about it. In this impaired state of mind I might not even recognize that as something I would wish to avoid happening. I pondered what a powerful worldly figure would do in my place. How would Charles Foster Kane react to placing his fate in another’s hands? Would he simply not let himself be put in this situation? Perhaps Charles Foster Kane would sooner have a mouthful of rotting teeth than entrust his safety to another.
Then, like a camera filming itself, I thought of myself sitting there trying to make sense of everything. Consciousness is a detective, I realized, eternally puzzling over what is occurring, attempting to make sense of its environment, to piece together meaning out of the disparate clues it finds. But a detective is also a nuisance, a monkeywrench in the machinery. In order to pull off any sort of repair work or self-maintenance such as this, a greater mechanism would have to decoy the detective long enough to work unobstructed, to prevent it from meddling. And that’s exactly what the purpose of the nitrous oxide is, a wild goose chase to distract my thoughts from what is really going on. I’ve voluntarily come in and placed myself completely at the mercy of the dentist. Or did I? Certainly he is functioning under the same principle. Perhaps he is merely an instrument of the maintenance department. This whole thing could be taking place under the influence of some kind of metaphysical nitrous oxide.
A distraction, that’s all this is. A distraction in the system. Then suddenly I understood everything. With an almost audible click the whole nature of the universe made sense. As if stormclouds were lifted and I could see into the distance in all directions and knew precisely where I was. The face of the clock was fallen away, exposing the tiny mechanical parts underneath. Everything was so simple and so obvious. I nearly motioned for the procedure to be halted. To hell with my teeth, I had seen the truth. I needed to scribble down this vision of clarity before it was obfuscated. I needed to ask for a pen and paper. If only I could remember how to speak.
And then I noticed the music playing was no longer Hendrix. It sounded familiar though. The melody resembled the song “Such Great Heights.” Not the original, but it could have been the delicate Iron and Wine version. And then I knew something was wrong. This was not part of the script. That song hadn’t even existed the first time I visited the dentist. It would have been impossible to encode into the tape loop. Something must have short-circuited. An interference of signal. The song was a tip-off that the pattern had been broken. The detective in my head bolted upright.
I opened my eyes and realized I was in the same room I had originally entered. I had been sitting there the entire time. I hadn’t gone anywhere. Certainly not for a subterranean ride in a bathysphere. The office around me looked unbearably ordinary. The mask was removed. I was handed a complimentary toothbrush and ushered on my way.
Groggily I stumbled outside into the daylight. I crossed the street to the park where some jazz musicians were gathered, hammering away at an obscure Thelonious Monk tune. I sat on a bench while my head slowly cleared and the feeling seeped back into my jaw, trying to make sense of all this, to reconstruct the state of mind that had led to my recent epiphany. I had a notepad in my lap, ready to jot down the faintest hint of the secret, but my mind was a blank. I felt the despair that for a fleeting moment everything made sense and then was spirited away, like a dream whose wispy tendrils eluded my grasp. Like a pearl disappearing into the murky depths of my soup. A tune whose melody I’d forgotten. Hopelessly I put away my empty notepad, the victim of a cruel joke. Why would the universe reveal its secret to me only to snatch it away again? What was the purpose in that?
And then a bird shat on my bag.
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