To The Head of the Class
As I became wise to the demands of private dental practice, I took to being somewhat critical and cynical of the motives and choices of my colleagues. I was just that kind of brat. These uncertain and suspicious perceptions I had of my fellow dentists were probably no more or less valid than their perceptions of me, as I kind of rode my own wild horse and set myself apart by staying single, living modestly, partying a lot, and choosing teaching full time over finding a banker and a wife and maybe someday getting on with growing up. It wasn’t me. At least not yet. Then it was, and then it wasn’t again. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I became a teacher of dentistry. For a dozen years I mixed part-time practice with my dream job of pretending to know everything. My days were spent in the company of a few dozen eager, intelligent, motivated, and dedicated female dental hygiene students. That story will be told, but on to the lesson of this chapter. When the opportunity came, I took the path that felt most exciting and engaging, where I could hold on to my idealistic — if naïve — values. The story at the time was that it would be unwise to invest in chairside dental practice due to my history of severe back problems. But in truth, when offered the teaching position, my head let my heart win, and my sciatic nerves went along for the ride. My lower back was a problem, but my interest in working too hard and making tough decisions was right up there too.
The photo you see here is of the Pierce College Dental Hygiene Class of 1983, my eighth and possibly favorite. It was a great and respected program with remarkable teaching and striving leadership. I was merely the dentist guy necessary to legally supervise the training as well as instruct in duties beyond the cleaning of teeth and gums. Like giving shots and nitrous oxide. You know, the fun stuff. The rest of the time I was giving headaches to the director and being self-important. But I eventually learned to practice what I was preaching about teamwork. Whenever I choose to kneel and pray, I am thankful for all these wonderful kids and the education I got as a teacher.
Intention Deficit Disorder
It was all going very well. I was young, mostly single, adventuresome, and in no hurry to know what I didn’t know. Since I either didn’t possess or couldn’t abide by more orthodox values related to God, Family, Profession, and Service, I just rousted about loving my work and the young caring students whom I felt I was growing up with. Outside of work I took to planning goofy and joyful events with other goofy and joyful friends. We would don costumes and jump into Puget Sound in winter, cook on our car engines and eat raw shellfish on the beach in spring, float in inner tubes singing our way down the Yakima Canyon in the summer, and have a chili cook-off in the fall.
I certainly was not my generation’s only incautious libertine. Far from it. But I did seem to know that eventually this carefree attitude would serve me well, as I was committed to the notion you only live once. They say that ‘youth is wasted on the young’, and considering how things were going for the grownups I knew, I fought to keep that from happening to me. With that, I kept looking for the newest groove so I wouldn’t get in a rut. And just as I turned thirty, along came street skating!
The Oly Roller
Outdoor skating was all the rage when newly invented high-compression wheels rolled out of the rink onto the asphalt. Often in front of a moving vehicle, which could be rather challenging. I couldn’t dance or spin or even stop very well, but my pals and I looked quite stunning in our short tight shorts, knee socks and elbow pads! Someone had to help bring this fad to the Capital City, and I was just the overgrown child for the job.
It wasn’t a half-assed effort either. I made it a lifestyle. During my four-day summer weekends I traveled the state with my skates in the trunk. I would stop and lace up at any long, flat converted rail-trail, smooth-shouldered highway, or quiet small town neighborhood with wide tree-lined boulevards. Looking surely far more ridiculous than I imagined, I prowled the edges of everywhere. When the first ridiculously huge Sony Walkman personal cassette player came out, my girlfriend spent a half-week’s pay to gift me the soundtrack to my very own movie. Shot on location. Woah! Lock up your daughters! Some gangly old guy is a-rollin’ down our street singing at the top of his lungs wearing little earmuffs that are plugged into what looks like a toaster oven clipped to his shorts!
Taking this craziness even further, I let two women I worked with at the college talk me into starting Olympia’s first, last, and only street skate rental business. “The Oly Rollers” of course. I was the one who put up most of the money, bought the skates, donated the truck that became our rental office, did the books, and eventually all the work. So there I was in my thirties: a dentist and college professor, sitting in the back of a beat-up truck in an empty public parking surrounded by leather shoe skates with big numbers on the back. From our fancy colorful camper parked by the lake shore, we would rent by the hour or the afternoon. Most of the customers didn’t last an hour, and most sunny days we didn’t last the afternoon.
It was a completely unprofitable venture, nobody really came to downtown Olympia on summer weekends, and most weekdays, well, I guess everyone except me was working. I recall many a slow Sunday afternoon grabbing a few bucks out of the cigar box and rolling into the Brotherhood Tavern in the middle of downtown to drink beer and play the jukebox while the old grizzled regulars stared and ribbed me. Didn’t care. I was a respectable downtown businessman after all, as well as a good foot taller on my skates.
The ‘Me’ Decade And Me
On reflection, part of this harmless defiance was just having come of age as a ‘sixties’ kid. I was cultured to be contrary, and with that I had found a clear on-ramp to imagination’s highway. They still refer to the 1970s as the “Me” Decade. With that, I got further and further into highly-capable unconventionality. I grew easily away from expectations and social norms. Convincing myself that my own way of seeing and doing things was surely more defining and rewarding than acting my age, playing the game, getting a real job, and starting a family with only a vague promise of happily ever after. I had neither the talent nor the interest in building the bars of my own cage.
On a Sunday summer morning in 1980, I pulled my eight wheels up to a Tumwater intersection where my father was waiting out the light in his big Pontiac. We tried to make conversation through the open passenger window, but little was said. Or could be. I saw sadness in his eyes. It was very awkward.
Within a year of that meeting, dad closed his small dental office. He died shortly after of a stroke. The years have not been without silent calls to forgiveness and prayers of redemption. A decade later I married and opened a dental practice. I look back gratefully at the circumstances and curious wisdom it took for me to bend life backwards and, while still young, approach whimsy, serendipity, and a connection to nature like there might be no tomorrow.