It was one of those unpleasant things that is best endured in silence and without complaint. I had had one prior experience with a root canal so I knew what the . . . ahem . . . drill was, and I steeled myself for several hours, spread over several days, of pain and painkillers.
But–I am told by my wife–I don’t ask enough questions of my medical providers. How she knows this I don’t know, since she isn’t in the examining/operating room or dentist/optometrist’s chair when they go to work on me. Nonetheless, I decided that I’d make a few discreet inquiries of the endodontist–a specialist in the treatment of dental pulp–so I could talk about them over the dinner table when I got home. Just to establish my root canal bona fides, to demonstrate that I hadn’t ordered a lap dance instead of a dental procedure.
“What is that stuff you squeezed into my root canal with that big gun of yours?” I asked the endodontist.
“It’s gutta-percha,” she said pleasantly.
“You’re kidding!” I said.
“Why would I kid you about something as important as a tree of the genus Palaquium in the family Sapotaceae?”
“I was just kidding about you kidding,” I said.
“You’re a real kidder.”
“I’m a human Mobius strip–very self-referential–when it comes to kidding.”
“So gutta-percha is . . . important to you?”
“To me, it’s like Mangel-Wurzel, or Holstein-friesian. It’s hyphenated and sounds complicated, but it’s really very simple.”
“And so . . .”
“You can drop it into conversation and people will be impressed, or you can use it as the surname of a hoity-toity character in a novel, and no one will be the wiser.”
“So you . . . write novels.”
“I write them, but for some reason nobody publishes them.”
“I’m a narrow specialist,” she said, focusing on her narrow specialty. “Tell me something about gutta-percha I don’t know.”
“Well, did you know that the ‘guttie’ golf ball–with its solid gutta-percha core–revolutionized the game?”
“I did not know that,” she said, in a passable imitation–if she was trying–of the late talk show host Johnny Carson.
“Yep. And long before we Westerners started using it, the natives of the Malaysian archipelago made knife handles and walking sticks out of it.”
“So the progress of civilization is marked by the degree to which we can turn knife-wielding natives into . . . weekend golfers?”
“You might say that.”
“I just did. Anything else?”
“Well, it was William Montgomerie, a British medical officer, who first introduced gutta-percha into medical use.”
“I hope he was properly honored for that.”
“You better believe it. A gold medal by the Royal Society of Arts in 1843.”
“What is it that’s so special about the stuff?”
“It doesn’t degrade in seawater, and it’s a good electrical insulator. Plus it’s moldable and flexible, so it was ideal for making underwater telegraph cables. Indeed, according to Wikipedia . . . ”
“An unimpeachable source . . .”
” . . . it made them possible. Which in turn led to unsustainable harvesting, and a collapse in supply.”
“But somehow, nature healed itself so that there’s enough of the stuff left that I could fill your root canal.”
“Apparently. But it went from being a household word in the second half of the 19th century to an obscure subject that very few people know anything about.”
“Which makes you unique–right?”
“Very,” I said, smiling up at her in the hope that she’d waive the $20 co-pay.
“How did it become a household word?”
“It was used in furniture, so naturally when you went were short a chair for Thanksgiving mom would say ‘Get the gutta-percha one from the attic.”
“I see. Well, this has all been very enlightening, but I’m afraid you’re not much of a writer.”
I looked at her with a wild surmise, like Cortez’s men in Keats’ poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” “What makes you say that?” I asked.
“There’s no way you could get a reader to believe you could talk to me with a metal brace around that tooth and a dental dam in your mouth.”