"Are you excited?" she asked me, as I took my place on the reclining dentist's chair. She was young, in her early 20s, very pretty. My mind raced: What would I be excited about? Was this going to be one of those Penthouse Forum encounters?
Then it occurred to me. Today is the New Hampshire presidential primary. Could that be it? It would surprise me that a person so young could be so plugged in. But isn't that what's propelled the candidacies of Barack Obama, Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee -- fired-up young people seizing their chance to be involved?
I decided not to leap to any conclusions. "Excited about what?" I asked her.
"About getting your fillings replaced!" she answered. Silly me. "The highlight of my year so far," I cracked.
The young dental assistant -- let's call her Heather (not her real name but close enough) -- asked if I wanted the TV on. I almost said no, then remembered how mind-numbing it can be to have people working on your mouth with no place for your brain to go. "Sure," I said.
She handed me the remote and told me I could pick the channel. Often in the early morning I watch Fox and Friends, but I didn't know if Heather and the dentist would realize I was being ironic, so I turned the tube to CNN.
The dentist came in and gave me a few injections. Heather had already numbed the area with a cotton swab. He told me I probably wouldn't feel a thing.
As it turned out, the encounter was probably the most painful experience I've ever had at a dentist's office. I say probably because there's one memorable occasion in close contention.
That was when I was a kid, maybe 12 or 13, and a dentist drilling a hole for a filling went too deep, turning my mouth into a epicenter of blinding pain. The dentist called over another person -- maybe a dental assistant, maybe a student. "See there," he said casually, pointing to a spot in my mouth. "That's an exposed nerve."
Back to Madison, Jan. 8, 2008.
Everything went well for the first 15 minutes. Roger Clemens was angrily defending his honor against accusations that he used performance-enhancing drugs. There was a story about a hiker who was likely killed by some creep who led police to her body and who may have earlier murdered an elderly couple.
Then Bill Richardson came on to talk about the New Hampshire primary. I couldn't see him, because of the way I had to turn my head, and I didn't hear him introduced, because the drill was grinding away at my old fillings --three of them, at a cost to me of nearly $100 each, after my insurance did its part.
But I recognized Richardson from his voice and his references to New Mexico and how well he expected to eventually do on the West Coast. Heather's grasp of the situation was apparently less acute.
"What are they voting for?" she asked the dentist.
He explained that it was the New Hampshire primary. "Oh," she said, not comprehending. "When do we vote for president?" She took a wild stab: "October?"
"November," the dentist corrected.
The thought ran through my head: "The Wisconsin primary is Feb. 19!" But I didn't say it. For one thing, the dentist had resumed drilling in my mouth. For another, here was a person who didn't even realize the New Hampshire primary had something to do with the presidential election. Did I really want her to find out about the primary in Wisconsin?
"But it's this year, right?" Heather said, processing the dentist's comment.
Nothing gets past this woman, I thought.
It turned out that Heather had more to say about the presidential sweepstakes she barely knew was going on. "I don't care who gets elected," she announced, "just as long as there's no more war."
There was more still. "I've never voted," Heather confessed. "But I'm going to vote this time. I'm going to vote for Hillary."
I thought maybe that was the only candidate whose name Heather knew, but I was wrong. She offered this nugget: "Obama annoys me."
Look who's talking, I thought.
The dentist gently encouraged Heather to vote for whichever candidate she liked but by all means vote. My brain began screaming: "NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!"
Until five minutes earlier, Heather hadn't even been certain this was a presidential election year. Now this idiot was encouraging her to vote.
I considered my options. I could ask the dentist to stop drilling so I could lecture Heather on civic responsibility. But that seemed and still seems to me like a rude thing to do. I thought about asking the dentist to please just kill me, and see if perhaps that would be taken as a cue that I had had enough talk about politics. Again, that seemed somehow not right.
There's nothing I can do about it, I realized. Not until next time. Then I can insist on being anesthetized.