A Scratch Behind the Ears

“Good patient, Paul.”

The man in the mask had taken his hands out of my opened mouth for a moment, not because he was finished (as I hoped), but only to change the bit on the drill he held.  It was, at least, a welcome change from the horrid grinding that had ensued each previous time he returned the drill to the wide-open aperture in my face.

Since the nice young lady manipulating the peripheral equipment necessary for the proceedings still had her  hand in the opening through which I normally communicate, the only response I had to the dentist’s statement was a surprised, “Mumph?”

I suppose I might have been trying to find my happy place (no mean feat in that chamber of horrors) as the procedure wore on, but I must have missed a part of his statement.  I was confused.

YoungGouldFor all the world, it seemed to me the good doctor had just given me the equivalent of a good dog, Rover!   I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if his next communication had been shake!  To my relief, it wasn’t.

“I said, ‘You’re a good patient, Paul.’  Not everyone is as calm and responsive to instructions as you.”

The vision of Rover sitting up and shaking hands with the masked man faded, and the drill began its inexorable grinding inside of my mouth once more.  I had something new to think about, anyway.

I’m a good patient!  Better than average.  Take that, you teenyboppers with your fake white smiles!  How do you like them apples, Mr. Mid-life Crisis with your new teeth veneers?

Somehow, reality has a way of catching up eventually.  My thoughts began to turn to the shallowness being exhibited by the aging man in the dentist’s chair at that exact moment.  What kind of man, mature in age—if nothing else, takes a simple statement such as the dentist had just made and turns it into a reason for celebration?

Just how hungry for compliments would one have to be for those words to elicit a celebration of that magnitude?

I was ashamed.

Still, it didn’t keep me from bragging to the Lovely Lady when I saw her a few hours later.

“He told me I was a good patient!”

Her response was less than enthusiastic.  “That’s nice.”

I remembered once again that it’s not a stellar accomplishment.  Truth be told, I was ashamed anew for telling her about it, anyway. Sheesh!  Still celebrating, in spite of my self-castigation while finishing my tenure in the dentist’s chair.

Perhaps, it’s time to let the curtain fall on that unfortunate performance. Often, the longer the production runs, the worse it gets.

But no.  I don’t think I’ll do that.  Sometimes, we learn.

Sometimes, we do better.  You be the judge.

Later that same afternoon, after the Lidocaine had worn off and I could feel my cheek again, an old customer came to see me.  I was busy with another patron, but as soon as I could get free, I headed over to see my old friend and his wife.

As I shook his hand, he told me that I would need to excuse him, because he couldn’t talk normally right then.  That’s right.  He had just come from the dentist.

The wheels started turning.  I bet you think I bragged about being a better patient than he was.  I didn’t.

The wheels in my head drove me to a conclusion that I don’t often reach, though.  Believing that his having had an encounter with a dentist on the same day was no coincidence, I determined that (as my dentist had) I should compliment him on something.

I didn’t really know why.

Funny.  I didn’t really even want to.  I did it anyway.

Maybe I should explain something.  I usually have a hard time giving compliments to folks I see as being in competition with me.  I have to make myself compliment other writers.  I don’t often say nice things about other French horn players.  I think it may have something to do with the idea that in building them up, I will diminish myself.

Foolishness?  Perhaps.  It seems to be a common ailment, though.  Within the society we live and move, it is more common to tear down those who are in the same field than it is to build them up.

On this day though—the Day of the Dentist—I was able to break that cycle.  The man in front of me has recently begun to build and sell guitars.  I had heard good things about them.

I told him so.

It meant a great deal to my friend.  He was humble about it.  His wife wasn’t, whipping out her cell phone to show me pictures.  We talked for fifteen minutes about his instruments and building techniques.

The last thing I remember about his visit was that lop-sided grin as he turned to say goodbye one last time, going out the door.  You know—the Lidocaine still hadn’t worn off for him.

I hope you’ll bear with me as I offer a couple of observations on human behavior.  Maybe more than a couple.

When you compliment others, you diminish no one.  A relationship is not a zero sum game, in which one party gains and the other loses.  A compliment is not an expenditure; it is an investment.  Everyone stands to gain from it.  Even bystanders.  My friend’s better half was affected positively as she heard her husband’s accomplishments touted.

When the shoe is on the other foot, and you are the one being complimented, don’t let it go to your head.  A pat on the back is just that—a pat.  It’s not a back rub, or an all-day spa treatment.  Acknowledge it, file it away to remember, and move on.  Being a good patient at the dentist isn’t a life accomplishment, nor does it merit a mention in the local newspaper.

Lastly—Compliment others because you love them.  The Apostle who loved to write letters (he must have—he wrote so many!) suggested that we must treat folks as more important than we ourselves are.  The result is that the whole body is made stronger—including ourselves.

Just so you know—I’m really not that good a patient at the dentist’s.

Still, it was nice of him to say so.  I promise, I’ll not include it in a resumé, should I ever have the need to apply for a new position.

I am, however, quite accomplished at shaking hands.

Maybe that will earn me at least a scratch behind the ears.




My child, I can live on a good compliment two weeks with nothing else to eat.
(Mark Twain ~ American humorist/author ~ 1835-1910)


Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.
(Philippians 2:3 ~ Holman Christian Standard Bible)



© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved.


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