Dental Work

antique dental tools - 1868 illustration

antique dental tools – 1868 illustration

I have had a rocky relationship with dentists my entire life. I remember one appointment when I was a kid – I couldn’t have been more than five or six – when the number of tiny cavities found during one visit numbered in the teens. My teeth have extremely soft enamel, which has led to many fillings over the years, and some of the dentists I’ve seen have seemed more like sadists than doctors. So there were several years in my twenties when I just didn’t bother going to the dentist at all.

These days, although I have a great dentist and what I’m fairly certain is the world’s gentlest dental hygienist, and reminders about upcoming dental appointments no longer fill me with fear, those check-ups have come to symbolize something more melancholy.

In 2012, when I went in for my appointment it was after a three-year hiatus. The break hadn’t been intentional. I remember the conversation I had had during my visit in 2009, when setting a date on the calendar for a year out seemed ludicrous. It seemed then like just one more thing I’d have to cancel or reschedule, so I decided that not making the appointment was the smarter option.

See, by 2010, I reasoned, I would no longer be living in Oregon. I would be living in Italy.

Of course, by 2010 I was not living in Italy. Nor had I moved by 2011, or 2012. And not only did making that appointment last year come with a heavy sigh of recognition that I was not where I wanted to be, setting another for a year later sent me down a spiral I still remember a year later.

It takes nothing at all for me to go from marking a date on the calendar 365 in the future to thinking I’ve let yet another year go by when I haven’t gotten back in touch with the nice girl from the relocation office in Milan who helped me with all that confusing paperwork, because I’m embarrassed that I’ve made no progress toward actually moving, and in fact I’ve actually taken more than a few steps backward on that front. I try not to think of the money I spent on her services – money my father left me when he died – because then my stomach turns over a little more and sends a lump into my throat that I have to fight back down.

My life was supposed to be different by then, according to my “no, I don’t think I’ll make my next appointment” self years ago. The me who says yes to making next year’s appointment these days is – what is she, a pessimist or a realist? Beaten down by years of continuing to put off a dream that’s prepetually “five or so” years away, perhaps I’m finally resigned to the fact that I’m not moving to Italy – or maybe I’m just tired of sounding like I was trying to talk myself into it every time I told someone of my goal.

As she was finishing tending to my teeth last year, my hygienist pulled an angled mirror from my mouth and asked, “So, should we just send you a reminder in a year? Or should we not bother?” I wanted to tell her it wasn’t personal. I wasn’t avoiding them. But explaining my reasons for such a long time between visits was too complicated, too painful, and – most important – not her problem.

My 2013 appointment came up on my calendar last week, and with it a fresh round of sadness. Yes, there went another year of no progress toward Italy. And yes, I made an appointment for 2014 before I left the dentist’s office. But the sadness is more complex now, as I’ve rediscovered making music – something that makes me happier than I’ve felt in years, is very much rooted to where I am now, and that I can’t quite fathom giving up. Even for Italy.

Maybe it’s a coping mechanism. Maybe it’s just one more piece of the upheaval that seems to be par for the course the last year or so. Maybe I’ve simply changed my mind. I don’t know. At the moment, what I know is that I have a dental appointment in April of next year, and that makes me less unhappy this year than it did last year. And I guess that’s something.

Thinking in (Bad) Poetry

Creative Commons photo by Steve A Johnson on flickr

Creative Commons photo by Steve A Johnson on flickr

I used to think in poetry.

It was bad poetry, mind you. Juvenile. Reductive. Mimicry. But it was in verse.

Twenty-five years ago, I was consumed by music. Every dream I had about my future involved becoming a singer, and nothing about the realities of what it would take to accomplish that (i.e. get out of Corvallis, Oregon, when I was terrified of leaving home) swayed me. Having given up guitar and piano as too difficult to master – and, to my mind, impossible to play while singing – I convinced myself singing was enough.

And then came the poetry. I had been consuming a steady diet of song lyrics since childhood, and began scrawling my own bits on the college-ruled paper in the back of my high school notebooks. These were always intended to be song lyrics, not just words, which meant everything rhymed. And when one’s vocabulary is young and, it must be said, based on a lot of crappy rock music, the arsenal of rhymes at one’s disposal is pretty dismal. I’m somewhat relieved that I don’t still have the lyrics I wrote in high school, although I’m sure they’d make for amusing reading now.

Hearing my own words put to music for the first time when I was eighteen had a drug-like effect. Any (minimal) doubts I had about my abilities were gone, and I wanted more. There were more small tastes during college, but it wasn’t until a couple years after graduation that I joined a band that would become the center of my life for the next three years. And although I didn’t contribute the bulk of the lyrics to the song list, I still spent many hours furiously scribbling verses into notebooks.

And then, abruptly, it stopped.

In the thirteen years between when I left that band and when those bandmates suggested four months ago that we start playing again, I don’t think I wrote a single poem. Not one verse. I went on to jobs where I thought in prose. I now make my living thinking in either long-form non-fiction or 140 characters. The writing itself is not the hard part. The writing itself is easy. Somehow, it’s getting back to thinking in poetry that I find challenging.

I’m trying to think in verses again, and writing things down, and I don’t hate all of them. But I look back at some of the scraps of paper from the band days and I can’t quite believe the same brain in my head right now is the one that turned some of those pretty phrases. Maybe there are some tricks you can’t teach old dogs, even if the old dog was once a young dog that did the trick without thinking. Maybe I’m just more aware that everything I want to say has been said before, and more eloquently than I can say it. Maybe I can’t think in both prose and poetry at the same time, the way I could never manage to play piano and sing simultaneously.

Or maybe I just need to keep trying. Even if it’s still bad poetry.

On Becoming Toni Basil


In 1982, when I was 10 years old, one of the most popular songs on the radio was “Mickey.” My peers will need no further information in order to have the tune firmly lodged in their heads for the next several hours (you’re welcome), but for you young whipper-snappers who were born long after the song came out, here’s a refresher course:

It’s been 30 years since I first heard that song and saw the video on the brand-spanking-new music channel, but I can still recall seeing the video as a ten-year-old and thinking, “I never want to become that.

Let me explain.

We all have moments of clarity in our lives, moments when we see things in a new way or with deeper understanding. These moments can spring to mind when we’re faced with difficult decisions, serving as guides through murky waters. They can help shape the course of our lives, either as incentives or deterrents. These are our touchstones.

Toni Basil’s “Mickey” video is one of my touchstones.

I have held onto the image of a woman well beyond her high school years dressing up as a cheerleader, and measured myself against it in many a department store dressing room. I’ve tried to avoid too-short skirts, too-much makeup, too-tight jeans – all in an effort to not look like I’m trying too hard. For many years, I’ve tried to walk the very fine line of not being a 20-something anymore and yet not being ready for retirement. I’m telling you, that middle ground seems perilously difficult to negotiate at times.

Basil made that video in 1980, when she was 37. She had already established herself as a successful dancer and choreographer in the 1960s before trying her hand at singing. “Mickey” routinely makes those “One Hit Wonder” countdowns (usually near or at number one), because although Basil’s recording career spans several decades, this is the only song anyone outside her immediate family knows.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll have noticed that Basil made the “Mickey” video – which, yes, she also choreographed – before MTV was even a thing. Her choreography career had included several films by that point, so I’m sure it seemed only natural to turn the song into a video. And, I’ll admit, the song itself has cheerleader elements to it, which no doubt made the video’s theme obvious to Basil even before she started filming.

What I’m saying is that Toni Basil was, by her late 30s, already a successful woman in four separate areas of show business by the time I saw “Mickey.” What embedded itself in my ten-year-old brain, however, was simply this: That woman is too old to be dressing like a cheerleader.

Back then, even if I had known her age, I likely would have said 37 was too old for that kind of getup. My mother was 40 that year, and she certainly didn’t dress like that. Today, at age 40, I cringe a little to realize she was, at the time, younger than I am now.

In truth, I hadn’t seen that video in probably 15 years before hunting it down to include in this post. Watching it today, and finding out Basil was 37 when she filmed it, have me questioning my formerly sacred touchstone. I still think the video is amateurish and overly silly – and yet I think the silliness is a damn sight better than all those musicians who take themselves too seriously (and, hello, it was 1980). I still wouldn’t want to be in public (or, jeez, on film) wearing a cheerleader outfit – and yet I understand now that musicians in videos are playing a role, not really being themselves. I still want very much to avoid looking like I’m trying to be someone I most definitely am not – and yet I’m also trying to learn not to concern myself as much with what other people think (it’s an extremely hard lesson to learn).

Basil, now age 69, was apparently asked not long ago about that famous cheerleader costume, and she said she still had it. I’d like to imagine that she still puts it on every now and then, all pom-pom shoes and pigtails, and bops around her house. While she folds the laundry or checks her email.

I have said, more times than I can count, “I live in fear of becoming Toni Basil.” I know what I once meant by that, and to a certain extent what I still mean, but I think I need a new touchstone. In fact, I might need a cheerleader costume. It would go nicely with the sparkly blue nail polish I’m currently wearing, and the blonde streaks I just had put in my hair.

Clearly, becoming Toni Basil would have been a pretty decent – not to mention prescient – goal for my ten-year-old self.

Italy Roundtable: What the hell am I listening to?!?



This month’s installment of the Italy Blogging Roundtable has two sides – at least, it has two possible sides. We had decided on the topic of VICES AND VIRTUES last month, and then pushed it back in favor of writing about the earthquakes in Emilia-Romagna, so this month we’re back on track.

Learning a language as an adult is hard.

I worked on French in high school, and then again later long after college, and both times was stymied by my inability to get my tongue and soft palate to do the necessary contortions to create the required sounds. In college, largely because it was an offbeat choice, I took a year of Biblical Hebrew, in which the book was organized in order of the frequency of word usage in the Bible. We never learned to ask about the location of the toilet, but the word “begat” was in something like chapter four.

Italian, by contrast, came much more easily when I started taking classes in 2001. The sounds weren’t impossible to make, and there were far fewer deceptive pronunciations than in French (not to mention English). I am a lazy student, however, and if I’m not actually signed up for a class or forced to use the language regularly because I’m traveling in Italy, I don’t practice.

Any lingering ability I have to converse in Italian is, I’m pretty convinced, due to how much Italian music I’ve listened to over the years. There are some singers who enunciate so clearly that you don’t have to guess at the lyrics, and playing those CDs on repeat for days has, in the past, given me access to turns of phrase I wouldn’t ordinarily have.

Up to this point, it’s all well and good. I’m keeping up my language skills by listening to music. This is also, however, where the trouble begins. You see, I’m not Italian, and I didn’t grow up in Italy, which means I have no idea if the artists that I play on repeat and sing at the top of my lungs are cool or not.

I have long lived in fear that my favorite artists are the Italian equivalent of someone like Britney Spears or Justin Bieber.

It could happen. I mean, most of the music toward which I’ve gravitated is pop, since that’s what’s played on the Italian radio station I favor and, often, the songs that are easier for me to understand. Singers like Nek, Eros Ramazzotti, Neffa, Alex Britti, Daniele Battaglia, L’aura, Tiziano Ferro, and Ligabue (among others) tend to be on heavy rotation. Translating the lyrics has, on occasion, left me feeling underwhelmed, although I tried to chalk it up then to a translation error on my part.

On some level, none of this should matter. If I like the music, that should be enough – the fact that it’s helping me learn a language is a huge bonus. And yet? It does matter. I’m a bit of a music snob, and the idea that I’m lowering my standards in another country is more than a little disappointing to me.

So, while listening to sub-par Italian music doesn’t exactly rank among the worst vices known to mankind, I certainly consider it a personal deficiency. And yes, if you’ve got Italian music you’d like to suggest that is both helpful to language-learners and not cotton-candy pop, I’m all ears.

My virtue? That I’m honest enough to tell you about my vice.

Do you have any vices to which you’d like to admit?

Other Voices from the Italy Blogging Roundtable

Find out what virtues and vices the other ladies at the Italy Roundtable are divulging this month – read their posts, comment, and share them.

>> Please note that the Italy Blogging Roundtable will be taking the month of August off – just like the Italians do! – so you’ll see us back with another Roundtable topic in September.

Italy Roundtable Suggestion Box

What would you like to see us write about in upcoming installments of the Italy Blogging Roundtable? If you have a suggestion for a topic, please leave it on our poll on the Italy Roundtable Facebook page.

photo by matsuyuki