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From 30,000 Feet

Thursday, May 12, 2016

It was a day. I’d just had my third root canal since March 24, when I had my first on Molar 19. The second, on Molar 20, followed March 29. Those two teeth were crowned April 14, and that was unexpectedly delight-free, as well. Now it was May 10, and I was in for my fourth multi-hour session in The Chair, and on this beautiful balmy afternoon I slunk into Jim Murrin’s office like a yaller street dog, my heretofore cheery mien dissolved. I was thoroughly done with numbing and needles and pain, with shots of epinephrine (or whatever it is that numbs my jaw and makes my heart race) and the wasp-sting and giant bumblebee drone of drills inside my head. I was done with latex mouth dams and fighting back the sudden panic that I couldn’t swallow, cough or breathe. I was almost ready to cry for the gas of oblivion, but pride held me back. Not sure who I’m trying to impress any more, but there it is.

I don’t have bad teeth. I have great big, beautiful teeth, and I love them. This is not their fault. The problem is that my cavities were treated in the late 1960’s, when, as Jim explained, the conventional wisdom (or dumbness) was to carve out a whole lotta tooth around every cavity, and fill that great hole with silver. There. All done. Fixed it. This weakens the tooth structure, and eventually what’s left of the tooth is going to dry out and crack around those gigantic silver fillings. Eventually, apparently, is in the spring of one’s 57th year.  As I understand it, eventually comes quickly if you grind your teeth in your sleep, eat kettle corn, muesli with dried apricot bombs, or almonds, to name just a few of my favorite things that have brought such joy and drained my bank account.

I find myself thinking about primitive dentistry. About cavemen, and what happened when their teeth cracked. Which they must have, given that there was the inevitable pebble in the roots, fruit or flesh. Dental pain is intractable and life-altering. What did they do when it struck?? They didn’t wait in a little anteroom full of alluring magazines to be put out of their pain. They didn’t have pliers or anything resembling them. How on God’s green earth did they pull each other’s teeth? Bash them out with rock and ice skates, Castaway style? I shudder to think of them suffering, perhaps for years. And I feel lucky that I, in my figurative silk suit, can go to Dr. Murrin and say "Please put me out of pain." I’ll sit still as I can. When you see my thumbs twiddling, or my feet describing little circles, you’re hitting pay dirt.

This array of magazines in the waiting room definitely helped, for it speaks volumes. Thank you, sweet Ida, for leading me here to this magical endopaintist, this paintodontist, who loves plein air, cityscapes, mountains, beaches, light, music, birds and my books, too. Who calls as I’m making the 2 ½ hour drive home to make sure I’m OK. I’m sure it was your doing that guided me here. What did DOD know of endodontists? I can recall my dad going to the dentist maybe three times in my youth. It was Ida who flossed twice a day, bought us all electric toothbrushes (with cords!) and spent far too many of her mornings in the chair at the dental school in downtown Richmond, returning silent and shell-shocked. She knew from tough dental work.
Close-up of central issue. This is an article about Jim Murrin's alter ego as a plein air painter. See his work at

 Dad had enormous teeth in a robust jaw, which he passed on to me. He’d throw his head back and bare his molars so we could see all that gold. We liked to say that he could chew soup. And he did! We’d laugh to hear his choppers clop-clopping on Mom’s fresh tomato soup, islands of Longhorn cheddar melting in it, a to-die-for summer treat. Clop, clop, clop. When he and Ida were first married she made him a pecan pie, which is kind of like making a peanut butter and honey sammitch for a 200-pound black bear. She took off a little piece off the pie and offered it to Dale. And he bit down on it and by accident her thumb, too, and she said she was sure he’d bitten it clean off. She never hand-fed that man again.

And now I’m remembering Dad slicing things, summer sausage or cheese or apples, and offering bits to us on the tip of his pocket knife, which was always well-sharpened and likely never truly washed. He’d stick it into the dirt to clean it. Dirt, he liked to say, is an excellent cleanser. To him I likely owe my healthy stable of antibodies. I loved the little thrill of danger I felt when I picked a treat with a delicate bite off the end of that knife. That’s probably how the ancestral Zickefooses fed each other, no fingers in the way. I’m wondering where my first pocketknife is now, the one with sides made of furrowed antler, and a wolf-head insignia in the silver base. Dad gave it to me, and I’d give the world to pry it open again, swivel the blade between thumb and forefinger and send it spinning into a perfect stuck landing in the lawn, the way he showed me to do.

E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Lately, I sit down to write about, for instance, the beauty of West Virginia in a rainy spring (my last post, which turned out to be about teeth) or garlic mustard (this post, which turned out to be about teeth), and what I get is teeth. With sprinklings of mortality, and Ida and Dale. I write about what’s on my mind, I guess. My son, once a nearly-spherical babe with white duck fuzz hair, has passed 6’, spends time building muscle, drawing amazing characters, fussing with his perfect ‘do, and driving himself to school. My daughter lives in Maine, is coming home for a couple of weeks this spring, and then spending the summer working at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. My much-too-beloved dog is growing old before my eyes. And look! so am I. What do you know.

 I don’t mean to sound forlorn, self-pitying, creaky or any of that, because I’m not. I’m riding this fresh and twisty bronco with everything I’ve got, and enjoying it immensely (well, all but the…you know). I’ve almost completely missed spring migration in Ohio; Chet and I haven’t had time for a good run since books started arriving in late March; but I’ve got a new book out, it’s got hard covers and gatefold pages and it weighs 3 ½ pounds! I’ve sold a pack of them, and people seem to like it. I get to zip around giving talks and meeting people, smiling and signing it. I’ve seen spring come on in Massachusetts and West Virginia and I’ve caught snippets of Ohio’s oriole, tanagers and bobolinks out the car windows as I flit around. In the one or two days at a time that I’m home, I plant and weed, piling straw around the tender peppers and tomatoes, and promise my gardens I’ll be back in late May. The house looks like several suitcase bombs went off in it—Bill’s traveling even more than I. I care, but not enough to do anything more than unpack, wash it all, and pack it up for the next trip. Thank God Liam can drive now, and is giving his rapidly-growing knees a rest from track this spring, because his far-flung parents would have missed every meet.

Me and Neka Roundy, Great Salt Lake Bird Festival mastermind and gracious host. Taken this morning, May 12. 2016

 I’m headed to Utah now to see what’s flying through there, take some field trips and give a couple of talks at the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival. I’ve shipped 30 copies of Baby Birds out here, and I hope hard I sell them all.  Being strapped into a small blue and gray seat is the only time I get to write these days. In fact, I just now yanked my laptop screen back from disaster, courtesy of the guy in front of me who, two hours into the flight to Denver, suddenly and swiftly drove his seatback into my space. Gotta love it. Yeah, I love it; love 35 minutes standing sock-footed in TSA processing, love the 36-carb pack of blueberry cookies that are my breakfast; love boarding position C-25 on a Southwest flight, which sent me to the why-me seat hard up against the restrooms, not breathing deeply. It’s all so glamorous, and I remind myself that it’s the life I asked for. But I treasure the time to buckle myself in, flick on the headlights, grab the wheel, and see where we wind up going.

Salt Lake City from Ensign Peak

I realized with an inordinate amount of glee that these pincushiony things are the seedpods of itty bitty alpine geraniums--the cranes' bills. Not an inch high, hugging the rocky slopes of Ensign Peak. Whoa!!

Not in Ohio anymore. Here be Lazuli bunting, black-headed grosbeak, vesper sparrow, ravens, magpies!!


Hey Julie! Your paragraph on cavemen choppers is actually something I have been thinking about lately. I have casts of a Neandertal skull and a Cro Magnon skull, both individuals who died nearly toothless, with massive gum recession, basically geriatric mouths.

And there's a beautiful skull from Georgia (the country, not the state) of a fellow who was on the cusp between Homo habilis and Homo erectus, also mostly toothless with gum recession.

I have had the opportunity to look at the mouth of an American Indian lady, who died close to a thousand years ago. She had most of her teeth, but they were worn down to the gums (probably from an exceptionally gritty diet) and had lost two molars. I was told that she was probably in her late twenties. Those other old folks mentioned earlier weren't much older. I don't know what they did for dentistry, probably not much more than a bear or a wolf would do. But they did have someone watching out for them, maybe pre-chewing their food for them or cooking it to mush when cooking came into vogue.

So what does this all mean for you? Not much, I guess. Be glad for what you have and the care you can get for them. And that you'll probably live three times, maybe even four times longer than our forebears did.



I have noticed since I turned 50 eleven years ago that the indestructible body of my youth was beginning to break down. There were just small signs at first then major events like cancer surgery and a dislocated shoulder. My teeth waited until I retired, and my dental insurance was paltry, to have problems. Maybe this is all why I've decided to hike the Appalachian Trail next year. It's my way of challenging my body to be strong once again.

When you said that the dentistry methods of the 60s were responsible for these tooth problems of today, it makes me wonder what medical procedures that we take for granted today will be looked upon with horror in the future. I'm betting that frequent x-rays will be on the short list. Most dentists I know "recommend" x-rays every 6 months. I refuse them. Once every 5 years or so is more than enough for a procedure that I feel may be carcinogenic.

My small beautiful teeth totally commiserate with your big beautiful teeth. Safe journeys, wonderful adventures and joyful homecomings to you.

Posted by Gail Spratley May 12, 2016 at 9:20 PM

Setting dental issues aside - just wanted to say that was a really nice review of Baby Birds in this weekend's edition of the Wall Street Journal! "...a breathtaking achievement, one of the most appealing natural-history books I have ever encountered."
... said reviewer Jonathan Rosen.

Hope this brings even more sales, and that they don't have to get spent on more dental procedures!

I am late reading you blog, so am sporadic too. Just want to say that I spent half my teen aged summers at La Jolla Shores, just down the beach from Scripps Institute. Also, a good friend of mine, Steve Carter, is a director there, something admin, not scientific, but it is a small place and your beautiful daughter Phoebe will likely meet him at some point. There is a wonderful hands on outdoor saltwater exhibit at the aquarium. If she has any money at some point, tell her to have a wonderful meal at Osteria Romantica, a splendid Italian restaurant. And sea kayaking to see the caves, and Warwick's Bookstore (which I hope has your new book). The Safari Park in Escondido is magical, but a ways off for one with no car. Do a special tour in a truck and see some animals close up. And on and on and on.

the cavemen (and women) just died when they their teeth were broken up badly enough...people have been dying of dental infections since time immemorial....remember Geo Washington's wooden teeth? luckily now we not only have modern dentistry but food processors. Imagine if you had to ask your kids to chew your food for you.

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