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Russell Frank: The Weekend Worrier Throws Caution to the Winds

by on January 20, 2012 6:00 AM

Here are the two ironclad laws of dental and medical emergencies:

  • They are more likely to happen on weekends than on weekdays. 
  • They are more likely to happen when you are doing something safe than when you are doing something dangerous.

Take ol' No. 15, the second molar from the end on the upper left. A chunk of mine broke off the other day. When? Friday afternoon. Was my dentist open for business? He was not.

And what was I doing at the time of this untoward incident? Trying to uncap a beer with my teeth? Biting down on an olive pit or a spoonful of Grape Nuts before the milk made it mushy?

No, no and no.

I was eating a sandwich made on what my family calls squishy bread – sliced, packaged sandwich bread as opposed to crusty bakery bread. We usually buy the crusty bread for morning toast and the squishy bread for school lunches.

Now truth be told, what was sandwiched between those slices of squishy bread was crunchy peanut butter and fig-and-honey conserve (I'm usually not that fancy about my peanut butter go-with – raspberry jam is the standard). But I'm pretty sure that no actual crunchy peanut bits were involved in the demise of my molar.

The previous times I suffered tooth failure, the culprits were steamed rice and Gouda cheese, neither of which is a member of the crunchy food group.

This phenomenon of the innocent-seeming menace is particularly prevalent in back injuries. In fact, I first became aware of the back's tendency to give out when you'd least expect it through a friend flattened by infrastructure trouble.

"What were you doing?" I asked him. I imagined he'd say hoisting a heavy barrow or splitting wood or maybe bench-pressing a grand piano.

His answer: "Lifting a salad bowl."

Three years ago I was completely immobilized by a sneeze. Sometimes I get twinges while washing my hair. These, apparently, are the straws that break the camel's back.

I'm reminded of running into a former student who had just returned from a deployment in Iraq. He was on crutches.

"What happened over there?" I asked him.

"Over there?" he said. "Nothing. I did this playing softball over here."

For that matter, have you ever tripped on flat ground?

As for the anecdotal evidence for such mishaps mishappening on weekends (when, as everyone knows, water heaters die and pipes burst): The greatest pain I've ever experienced was inflicted by an abscessed tooth (my dental history has not been pretty). Not only did this happen on a weekend; it happened on a weekend at a mountain lake a good two hours from civilization.

The pain of an abscessed tooth, according to Wikipedia (I got to the people's encyclopedia just before the shutdown), "is continuous and may be described as gnawing, sharp, shooting, or throbbing." That sounds about right. Not to belabor the point, but the gnawing-sharp-shooting-throbbingness was so intense that it made me pound hard objects with my fist just to distract myself with a lesser pain elsewhere in my body.

Come to think of it, one of my daughters opened a ghastly gash in her chin in a jumping-on the-bed fall in a cabin on another visit to that same lake. We'll not be going back there any time soon.

And that same daughter, intensely noise-averse, like her pop (why, oh why, then, am I living among the Woo people?) once clapped her hands over her ears at the sound of the vacuum cleaner. The problem was, she was holding some tiny pebbles or tiny shells – memories diverge on this point – in her hands at that very moment. Said tiny objects thus installed themselves in her inner ear. On a weekend.

Off to the emergency room we went. Fortunately, the ER doc, despite being a diehard Mets fan, was otherwise a very clever fellow. His remedy: He filled a turkey baster with warm water and squirted it in each ear. Out washed the foreign particles. And out came my checkbook. (One argument for universal health insurance is that people without it wind up getting their primary care at the emergency room, which ain't cheap.)

I may be misremembering this, but I believe our regular doctor had also gone fishin' when my helpful daughter slipped while mopping the laundry room floor after one of those stupendo Central Pennsylvania T-storms -- and broke a toe.

I realize this account makes us sound like an accident-prone family, but we're actually rather cautious by nature -- which seems to be the problem. From now on, I'm going to spend my days of rest cracking walnuts with my teeth and playing extreme sports. I advise everyone else to do the same. Because the world is deviously booby-trapped, especially on weekends.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled ÔÇťAmong the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," was published this fall by the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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