Monday, September 08, 2008

the case of the impacted tooth.

Unlike many kids my age, I enjoyed going to the dentist as a child. My parents reveled in the exceptional luxury of bringing along a perfectly obedient youngster – minus bribes and tantrums – to the one great bastion of all childhood nightmares. And why not, I suppose, when all you will ever get is the smug satisfaction gained from the sight of the dentist fawning over your teeth (“So rare to find teeth like yours these days!”) The usual sessions established themselves in an orderly triad: general inspection, cleaning, and perhaps a filling or two of amalgam. I invariably looked forward to the pleasant cycle of friendly hellos, quick checkups, and words of encouragement – after which it was “off you go” in a span of around half-an-hour, at most one hour.

But the scourge of an impacted molar (read: wisdom tooth) is entirely something different.

“You won’t be able to eat like a king for a week,” colleagues told me, those who have successfully become veterans of an ordeal where even the most intrepid brutes cower and back down. Because it won’t be like any other ordinary tooth extraction – call it minor surgery, maybe. The dentist makes an incision, takes out the erring tooth, and seals the wound with a suture. All in two hours. Twice that if you land yourself the unluckier sentence of having two misbehaving teeth. Or three. Or four (the ultimate apocalypse).

It’s actually more the thought of temporarily having to resort to a quasi-hermetic lifestyle that urged me to reconsider my options. Previous victims have meekly shut themselves off from civilization in the confines of their homes awaiting recovery, subsisting on nothing more than clear soup and ice cream (this weeklong diet actually sort of wracked up my digestive system). Seeing the results of my panoramic X-ray, however, it was clear that I had no other choice: Have the tooth extracted in a jiffy or face the unglamorous prospect of resembling a male Ugly Betty in the near future. God forbid.

And so I just found myself nonchalantly going down to the dentist’s one sunny afternoon with thirty minutes’ worth of waiting time before she came barging in the door, cheery and bright-eyed, all set and ready to roll. In no time I was positioned on the reclining chair facing the concrete wall that had a huge rectangular aquarium perched atop it, where thick-lipped goldfishes swam idly by, peering out from behind their crystal enclosure with bulging eyeballs and almost mouthing, “Thank heavens for evolution! Long live us toothless creatures!”

No, I wasn’t having paranoid delusions – just a fickle stretch of wild imagination. For additional self-amusement, I had to conjure up something big and toothy. Quick.

David Archuleta with gopher-sized incisors! (Better yet, molars. Third molars.)

American Idol was fresh off this year’s season, and the choice seemed apropos enough. But before I was able to settle comfortably with a toothy Archie inside my head for entertainment, the anesthetic was drilled into the base of the malpositioned tooth accompanied by a sharp pain that radiated around the area. Slowly, numbness enveloped the vicinity of the tooth, spreading to the adjacent gums, and I felt my sensory faculties start to falter. After a few minutes, I touched the right lower part of my cheek but felt nothing. Sensation at the left, upper and anterior parts were however intact. Could it be? My closest guess is that she had infiltrated a tributary of the right posterior branch of the mandibular (V3) nerve.

My dentist was, of course, completely oblivious to all these riddled thoughts. She was content to hum along with jukebox hits bouncing off the radio, while her hands moved dexterously in a medley of fine incisions and stitches. I, on the other hand, busied myself with other things – shuttling my consciousness back and forth from checking the time on the wall-mounted clock to intentionally staring at (and therefore blinding myself with) the overhead light. At the same time, I was faintly aware of the acrid, salty taste of blood, the feel of loosened oral mucosa, the ubiquitous whir of those complicated dental machines.

And now, the highlight.

Minutes earlier, the smile on my dentist’s face told me she had seen a part of the prodigal tooth hinting at the surface. Now, the same smile told me things were finally ripe for extraction. In preparation for the maneuvers ahead, she tried to work out the optimal position. Twice with her blood-stained gloves she steadied my skull and warned me of an impending crack as she attempted to extract the stubborn tooth. A brief second to gather momentum – then a rough cracking sound – after which a vanquished crown came into view, followed by a root, and the other root soon after. It was over in just a little over an hour. Record time!

Before I was sent home on antibacterial prophylaxis plus tons of good-natured advice, I was let in on a fascinating piece of dental trivia: Patients taking pictures of their extracted tooth! Let’s just say I wasn’t in the mood then to count myself an exception. Which only means…

Another unusual piece of trivia (which served as a warning as well) is the fact that the Chinese are inherently hematoma-formers. In other words, expect a sizeable one up your cheek the next day. I was lucky I didn’t have it in the genes. When I woke up the next day, the most I had was a puffy right cheek and a throat all briny from swallowing blood-tinged spit overnight. I wasn’t spared a Sufi’s lifestyle, however, and the following week saw me losing touch with the outside world, diligently heeding the cold compress-warm compress routine every so often, forgoing planned appointments and missing two dinner parties. I would go on to undergo manual removal of impacted food particles twice, a painful re-suturing of the wound, and the agonizing sensitization of the adjacent second molar.

It’s been more than three months after the operation, and the gap hasn’t fully closed up yet. What with adverse conditions as sleeplessness, stress, and fatigue inadvertently taking their toll, I was told that the healing process could take as long as one whole year! For the meantime, therefore, I have to patiently make do with extra care on the chewing, plus the occasional job of irrigation should any food particles go wayward. All’s well that ends well.

Moral of the story?

If you happen to be around the same age as I am, and have experienced a dull, intermittent pain somewhere at the back of your oral cavity, consult your friendly neighborhood dentist as soon as possible.

Before you give the sandtiger sharks a run for their money.

Before you incidentally end up in the next season of Ugly Betty, without so much as an audition.

And worst of all, before you squish your chances of becoming the next American Idol – all because Simon Cowell thinks you’re better off modeling rabbit dentures.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

chronicles of the glass slipper.

(The piece below was chosen as the winner of the “Cinderella: The Musical” online review-writing contest sponsored by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, with the ultimate arbiter being no less than Lea Salonga herself. Thanks, Lea!)

“It was midnight when I saw the pair of shoes, making the fairy tale association easier: the ball gown and the horse-drawn carriages would revert to its origins as cinder rags, squash and rodents but the glass slippers would remain irreversible.”

- Wilfredo Pascual Jr., “Devotion” -

Part I: The Encounter (Almost)

“Look! It’s Lea!”

I almost choked on the ice-cold beverage I was lazily sipping when I heard my mom’s excited voice, which drew my attention to a gritty halt. Heeding warnings that a Sunday night turnout would be ruthlessly massive, we arrived at least two hours early before the scheduled 8 pm run of Cinderella at the CCP, giving us the pleasure of time to dawdle at nearby Harbour Square. There, seated with my back facing the window, I whirled around just in time to see a young woman in shades and stilettos steadily approaching the café we were in. My mind was racing. Almost instinctively, I ran a quick initial profile of the image:

Assessment # 1: Too young.

Assessment # 2: Too short.

Assessment # 3: Too much brown hair.

Final verdict: Not Lea.

“Surely not Lea,” I casually remarked, albeit a tad disappointed. “Only a look-alike.”

Yes, it couldn’t have been Lea. It was only someone walking along with a man named Robert Chien who was carrying an adorable toddler named Nicole and accompanied by what I presume was the nanny in white. Alas that someone – fresh from her matinee show – promptly took a left turn, entered the next restaurant, and disappeared out of sight.

“Did we enter the wrong place?”


Part II: Once Upon A Time

The first time Lea brought the house down during her packed gig in Iloilo last January, I was stuck with medical school here in Manila. When she held her two-night “My Life On Stage” concert last May, I was back home in Iloilo for summer vacation. Opposite ends of a pole? Not quite. There’s something about her I find interesting:

She was a former pre-medical student who peerlessly rose to unparalleled stardom on Broadway.

I, on the other hand, am a medical student who had always fancied being on Broadway.

Before Broadway, there were fairy tales. I was a certified Disney baby as a child, and Cinderella was one of those classic tales I got acquainted with early on. One eventually outgrows that phase, however, and I came to realize that even as the plot remained timeless, the film fell short of everything else – despicable villains, memorable scenes, heart-wrenching songs – heck, the heroine only got through in the end because she happened to have a frumpy, overweight, wand-wielding pixie for a godmother!

I reckoned that if it were not for the chance to see Lea live, Cinderella might live up to its silver screen counterpart and bore me to death with its trite, hackneyed once-upon-a-times and happily-ever-afters.
Boy, was I wrong.

Never see a play merely because of an actor.

And never judge a play before you’ve even seen it.

Part III: Music And Magic

The first scene of Cinderella tells you nothing about glass slippers. The curtain rises and the storyline unfolds with Cindy wearily scrubbing floors in a supposedly drab and dingy room, simultaneously breaking into sweat and song. With a wave of the maestro’s enduring baton, luxuriant notes gushed out like concentric ripples across the river-of-an-audience, keeping us gripped to our seats in an element of enthralled, awestruck, whatever you term it. The magic has begun.

As a theater enthusiast, it amazes me how one can trace musicals back to their composers. Andrew Lloyd Webber, for instance, relies on the stark grandiosity of his creations. Sondheim, on the other hand, is heavily thematic. Cinderella easily identifies with Rodgers and Hammerstein through and through – the trademark light and easy type – lush, romantic and almost bordering on pretty (as what Julie Andrews calls it) but never losing verve and vibrancy.

Credit the vitality of this production to the energetic members of the company, who are in a league of their own. Charlie Parker was effectively effervescent as the “frumpy, overweight, wand-wielding pixie”, playfully romping and prancing about the stage like a schoolgirl on extended vacation. Julia Cook was all raspy and stormy as the scheming stepmother, while stepsisters Jen Bechter and Brandy Zarle successfully kept our stomachs sore from guffaws while demonstrating how it is to have an IQ 50 points lower than the normal population. Peter Saide – the tragically happy Prince – may get a bit too slushy at times, but he generally delivered his lines with just the right punch. And of course, there was Lea herself with her constant switching from tragic girl to resplendent royalty, from underdog to celebrity – in perhaps a little more than a twinkle of an eye.

The audience, incidentally, was just as entertaining.

A kid kept on giggling every time Cinderella and the Prince sidled up for a short smooch. A few meters away, some middle-aged woman roared away without brakes every time the stepsisters cracked up an especially comedic stunt. The mother-daughter pair beside me, meanwhile, animatedly discussed the veracity of Lea’s character after witnessing her quick, instant costume changes.

“No way! That’s not Lea! No one can dress up that fast!”

“Yes, dear – that’s her – she’s just really fast!”  

Though I must admit these surreptitious ad hoc scenes provided an amusing distraction, I can’t help agreeing that I, too, am yet to see someone who can expertly don a ‘do-and-gown’ in the span of a few seconds. The question thus arose: Just how believable are fairy tales?

Part IV: Reality Bites

My epiphany arrived in the form of a well-written script.

Now I particularly relish plays and musicals with witty scripts – the types that exude charm and sophistication with a single line, a pun, a repartee. While Cinderella certainly did not compare with the hair-raising terror of Phantom Of The Opera, the curdling patriotism of Les Misérables, or the subtle fragility of Miss Saigon, it was in the dialogue that I derived much insight from – plus a bundle of hearty laughs.

Because that is precisely the challenge posed by Cinderella the musical: to defy the stereotypes and turn a proverbial fairy tale into a story in sync with the times. In this regard, The King (Jefferson Slinkard) in all his miserliness and cynicism stands out as the real hero of the show. Just when you thought things were hopelessly headed in the direction of dreamy-eyed and sickly-sweet, out he comes to save the day – unbuttoned pants and all – throwing in a fair bit of beer, inflation, and the Secret Service. Trust His Majesty to cook up something relevant and true-to-life as a crucial part of the recipe.

Of course, watching Cinderella meant that temporary two-hour escape from the outside world into the nooks and crannies of our erstwhile childhoods – something which we all crave for once in a while, and which can be therapeutic. In psychology, they call it regression: a reversion to an earlier, less “mature” state as an adaptive mechanism.

But the most important reason is also the reason why fairy tales like Cinderella exist in the first place. They’re there to remind us to keep believing. Specifically – to quote something cliché out of the musical – to believe that the impossible can be possible. When I slipped into the shoes of Herr Zeller (the diehard Nazi captain in “The Sound of Music”) way back in high school, I was plain dumbfounded on how to go about portraying a villain, a military dog at that, for the first time. With hard work and a bit of believing, however, impossible became possible, and I somehow pulled it off in the end.

Lea may have also felt the same way filling in the glass slippers of THE Julie Andrews, her idol. While she definitely has no problem navigating the raggedy-lass-cum-regal-princess role, it is a great deal to match (even attempt to surpass) an already recognized standard. Such a challenge must have loomed all the higher with the fact that you have the same piece of material on the palm of your hand for a straight grueling eight months. And you have to make sure it is always genuinely magical every night.

So, can one be a doctor and a Broadway star at the same time?

I’m not counting that one out.

Part V: Happily Ever After

The curtain finally rose for the last time, and the applause was expectedly thunderous. I was clapping hard for everyone onstage, for every single member of the cast who diligently underwent arduous daily rehearsals and unforgiving routines. Theater actors are the epitome of stamina, and confronted with the additional task of having to traverse dimensions and generations, the working pillars behind Cinderella appeared to have done a good job.

Just to be curious, how do they do it?

Lea herself let out the secret in one of her “backstories”. “Pretend it’s the first show,” she quips. An actor must always look for something new at his/her “own little corner” and share it with the rest of the world.

Ironically, the same rule applies to us audience members.

If you don’t like fairy tales to begin with, pretend you’re a child. Pretend it’s the first time. And if you have come to grown tired of them, pretend it’s not just the same old story, but a new one you have come to love again and again. Because at some point in our lives, we are going to need fairy tales.

Not just the dreary and the dreamy, half-wanting to escape the brusque reality.

Not just the wan and the weak, half-wishing to possess the strength of adversity.

On the contrary, it’s for the ordinary, faceless, nameless person out there – simply because fairy tales are for grownups too, simply because it wouldn’t hurt to have a little magic now and then. Keep it real, find your escape, but never stop believing – because who knows – you might just get to live happily every after.