Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Monday, September 27, 1999

Pain: That’s the
root of the matter

AS I write this, half my face is numb. I just had root canal. Root canal. Are there two other such innocuous words in the English language that when paired together strike fear and dread into hearts?

Let's find out. "Shrub appliance." Nope. How about "casaba squall." Not scary. How about something that sounds close to root canal like "roof banal" or "spoof channel"? See, you can pair just about any other words together and not have the terrifying impact of the marriage of "root" and "canal."

Root: the part of a plant which typically grows downward into the soil, allowing the plant to absorb nutrients.

See? A root is a good thing all by itself.

Canal: an artificial waterway for navigation or irrigation or a tubular passage. Canal, a perfectly nice word, a word that implies industry and hope, like in the Panama Canal; a fine upstanding word as long as it watches out who it associates with.

But now watch happens when you put the two words together: root canal. Owwweeeeeeeee!

This is the first time I've had root canal. I've had dentists do all kinds of other horrible things to my mouth. I had a dentist who would never give me enough pain killer before he drilled. He'd say, "tell me if this hurts." Then I'd wriggle in the chair saying, "It hurts! It hurts!" and he'd say, "Shut up, punk."

I'VE had fillings and caps and extractions. I even had an orthodontist who would yank teeth out of my head without any pain killer at all. He'd just sort of sneak up on you with the pliers behind his back and then tear that bugger right out of your mouth. Then he'd say, "It's all right, it wasn't a permanent tooth." And I'd sit there in shock and say, "Yeah. NOW it's not."

Orthodontists used to be like that, especially the ones who worked for the military. They were like gardeners, worried about how the garden would look in 10 years. These trees are too close. That one's got to go. Yank. Think I'll bind up this bunch of trees in wire. Bam, you got braces. They weren't interested in any ideas you might have on the subject. Or your pain.

BUT I have always avoided root canal, until now. There's no good time to have root canal. But my timing was particularly magnificent.

"Hey, we're closing down your paper. You are losing your job. Your life is being turned upside down. And, oh yeah, you're having root canal."

Thank you, God.

Everyone said that great strides had been made in root canal. That it basically was pain free. But I adhere to the principal that NOTHING in life is pain free, especially when someone is drilling a hole in your tooth and digging out all the nerves right down to your jaw line.

So I wasn't going to take any chances. The doc gave me the usual amount of pain killer to numb the area to be excavated. But when he asked me if it was numb after a while, I told him I could still feel stuff. So he kept injecting the juice until you could have shot me with a 9mm handgun and I wouldn't have felt it.

I might have let him overdo it just a bit. I couldn't write my column for a few hours after the procedure because I think my brain's humor lobe was deadened.

But here's the deal. It didn't hurt. Really. I think it's time for people to quit slandering the words root and canal when used in conjunction with each other. Root canal. Root canal. Owwweeeeeeee! OK, so it's still going to take some getting used to.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802
or send E-mail to or

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