The dental hygienist climbed onto my ergonomic chair and braced her knee against my lower jaw.

No, wait. She didn't really put her knee on my chin. What she did -- and I'm sure it was unintentional -- was press the heel of her hand against my lip and chin as she poked and scraped. I sent classic patient distress signals -- rising torso, widening eyes, throat squeaks -- but my lower lip was almost touching my collarbone before she let up.

Usually, hygienists who see patient distress stop as if the oil light had come on. "Are you OK?" they ask. This diligent young woman was more focused. She leaned on my mandible for what seemed like minutes before she finally squirted water into my mouth and told me to swish.

That distracted me. I remember when every dentist had a supply of little paper cones and a tiny sink next to the chair. "Rinse and spit," we'd be told. Rinse and spit, rinse and spit. No one came out of a dentist's office feeling dainty in those days.

No one went into a dentist's office feeling lighthearted, either. Well, perhaps some hardy souls swaggered in bravely -- Lawrence of Arabia or Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, maybe -- but I remember dawdling in the hallway outside my childhood dentist's office like a doomed criminal heading to the guillotine. No wonder tumbrils took the condemned to beheadings. Only a wheeled cart I couldn't control could have delivered my child self to that chair on time.

As it was, I slunk in late, feeling the dread I now associate with realizing the PBS show I'm watching is part of a fund drive. My dread was justified because my dentist believed Novocain was for adults only.

Drilling baby teeth didn't hurt, he reasoned, so children didn't need to be numbed before he leaned into their tender gums with a whirring carbide bur. When children responded with the dental distress signals described above, he assumed they were poorly brought up.

But I digress from contemporary dentistry, which is pain-free once a person's gum, jaw, cheek, nose and temporal lobe have been rendered numb. The numbing agent is applied with an extremely sharp needle that's inserted here, there and oh, what the heck, everywhere. Let's be sure!

A sharp needle is a good thing, of course. No one wants to be stuck with an extremely dull needle. Still, the anatomy of the mouth and jaw is such that any needle seems immediately to break through the viscerocranium and go straight for the eye.

"We'll give that a few minutes to take effect," the dentist says jovially, and goes to lunch.

Your body, which had risen several inches above the chair during this process, settles back down. You wait, eyes closed, mouth ajar, thankful the painful part of pain-free dentistry is over, but still dreading step two.

Pain or no pain, allowing a person who hasn't even vowed to love and cherish you above all others to operate a drill in your mouth is the very definition of trust. Corporations should use it as a team-building exercise.

We can skip the dental work itself because it truly is painless. Some buzzing, some anxiety that the drill will strike an unprotected nerve and some Muzak (always including Gilbert O'Sullivan) and you're all done.

The numbing agent, however, has just gotten started.

It will continue to ooze through your jaw, your ears and your cheek like an oil slick, until it finally stops just after you discover what it's like to have numb eyebrows.

I probably sound like I'm always at the dentist, but, in fact, I've had good checkups for decades.

This isn't because I was a child who never ate candy and took excellent care of my teeth.

I was a dental reprobate who defied both scoldings and dire predictions of future toothlessness.

Only after pretty much every tooth in my head had been repaired several times did I begin to enjoy "good patient" status.

Neither my dentist nor I is under the impression this is an admirable thing.

Write to Margo Bartlett at