On Keeping Medicine Weird

“Keep Austin Weird” is either a way of life or an effective way to market a city that desperately wants to let everyone know it is in Texas but not necessarily of Texas. But how many other cities are keeping it weird? I first saw the slogan in Portland, Oregon, and they really seemed to be living the words there.

Whoever’s doing the work to Keep Portland Weird is doing an extremely good job.

Like Austin’s claim to be the Live Music Capital of the World, the idea that they’re keeping it weird can sometimes seem a little forced. Like the guy in your group of friends who likes to keep telling people how cray-zee he is before jumping fully clothed into a pool.

Trying too hard.

Sure, Austin has its share of cool tattooed people swimming naked in the lakes and rivers, of homeless people trolling commuters in bus queues, of impromptu art shows, graffiti walls and the like, but the people who really keep Austin weird, in my experience, are the people charged with keeping us well.

This is neither the time nor the place to have a thorough discussion of the American healthcare system  – short version: it’s insane – but in my experience, the people at the front line are fine men and women doing an often unpleasant job in often even more unpleasant circumstances.

My first dentist when I got here – the only one who took my weird insurance that was probably not real insurance at all – was an old man with long white hair, tied back in a small ponytail. He operated (if that’s the word) only in the mornings, out of three small rooms – an office, a waiting room and the place where Bad Things Happened. This third room looked very much like a museum re-creation of an Olde Tyme dentist surgery, with none of the gleaming machinery or hi-tech gadgetry that would usually set my mind at ease, at least a little.

He checked my teeth, told me my gums were not in good shape, and proceeded to give me the kind of cleaning that I presume members of his profession do instead of going to the gym. He gave himself a workout while dragging hard on various sensitive areas of my mouth. While doing so, he talked about English high tea, bringing up his theory that English teeth are bad because of the scones and the jam we eat every day. (Just to be clear, we have some of the best teeth in Europe thanks to our crazy socialist health service, but clearly I was not a shining example of this truth.)  He told me I might have left it a little late to look after my teeth. Talked about deep cleaning. Mentioned possibly referring me to a periodontist, which he promised would hurt.

Weirdly, I’ve been told this a few more time by different dentists over the years, before they then restrict themselves to scraping at my gums. Do they all get the same script?

Finally, he tells me how I seem to be losing my accent (having a rubber-gloved hand in my mouth probably had something to do with this) and how much he was sick of hearing about the royal wedding.

I liked him. As much as I can like a stranger who hurts me, then threatens more pain, then charges me for it.

After that, I went to a dermatologist because I now live where the sun really shines and you have to watch out for that shit. After checking me over, he asked me to come back six months later so he could check on some moles he didn’t like the look of.

“It’s not that there’s anything wrong,” he reassured, “they’re just suspicious.” And he explained thusly: “It’s like an old jail house out on the plains. If you saw it there, you’d think it was suspicious. But if it’s empty, then there’s nothing to worry about. It’s when it’s full of bad guys that you have to start worrying.” Dermatology, Texas style.

My moles were empty jail houses out on the plains. For now.


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