on dentists, david foster wallace, and death

When I lived in St. Louis, my dentist, a balding, middle-aged man with a love for Woody Allen films, had a pair of video goggles, headphones, and a movie library that trended toward the 1980’s. A patient, if he or she chose, could select a movie, put on the goggles and headphones, and recline in the vinyl covered chair while the dental office dropped into the background.

The reason this came to mind is that recently I went to the dentist in my new city of residence and the one thought I had as numbing agents and nitrous oxide worked their way into my gums and bloodstream was: dentists should offer patients earplugs. The sound of whirring motors scraping at enamel along with the casual conversations of weekend plans from those who work in the office was disconcerting. Laughter rose and fell over high cubicle walls, did he say he’d call you later, a voice asked, vrrrrrnnnn the drill ground on. I wished I were back in St. Louis, comfortably reclined while a movie played inches from my eyeballs. The noise of the office would be drowned out by the dialogue, “I was thrown out of N.Y.U. my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final, you know. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”

Movies, entertainment, the need to escape from reality naturally led to thoughts of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It’s a novel that has stayed with me over the years, more so than any other book. The reason being is that it seems to describe a world more and more like our own. Skype, Google Hangouts, the rise of images over text, and the need, the desire, to be constantly entertained. And, while there is no malevolent videocassette; there are smartphones, there’s the constant flow of social media and blogs to keep us clicking and flicking. Content is consumed. Screens are to be in front of us. Activity is to be measured and recorded.

With these thoughts in mind and Wallace’s work bookended by his death, I closed my eyes as the dentist drilled and the assistant suctioned. The light shone through my eyelids and I thought about a Radiolab podcast on dying. The podcast discussed end of life care and how most doctors do not want medical procedures done to save them. It cast the contradictory notion of people’s wish to die peacefully in their sleep versus the desire of families to not let go, unable to understand the trauma caused by lifesaving techniques and their diminishing returns. The warmth of nitrous oxide in one’s body, the sense of light surrounding one’s senses and a kindly voice murmuring encouragement, almost there, just a couple minutes, just about done, and one can imagine the preference for friends, family and comfort toward the end of life.

In the age of entertainment though, where is the space for conversations on aging and death? How do we talk about what it means to have machines keep people physically alive at a diminished quality of life? With talk of the quantified life, are there people asking how to measure the quality of a life that is overly connected to mobile devices? Does disconnecting one from the machine take on a different meaning as people choose to be further intertwined with technology? If I were able escape the dental office through entertainment, would my mind be allowed to wander? Would I seek the threads and run my fingers lightly along these thoughts or would the mundane be replaced with the mediocre: a screen full of beta waves boring into my brain?

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)