Monthly Archives: June 2013

My First Filling (or, Why I Can Never Wear Chapstik Again)

I’ve never had a cavity.

Don’t ask me how apparently spectacularly healthy gums and teeth have lived in my mouth for the last twenty-three and a half years, because I have no idea. Yeah, I brush my teeth twice or three times a day, and I floss whenever I remember, but I also went through a phase when I was in elementary school when I had spectacularly bad dental hygiene (Basically I was a grimy seven-year old with glasses who didn’t brush my teeth enough. Sorry world.) and I have always partaken of copious amounts of sugary foods and drinks. Yet somehow, miraculously, I have never had a cavity.


I had a cleaning last week and the guy goes, “Oh. You have a little cavity.”

“No I don’t,” I said.

“Just a little one,” he said, “on the bottom.”

“I don’t have a cavity,” I repeated. “I’ve never had one!” Didn’t this guy know I had decided I was immune to cavities?

He pulled off his gloves and tossed them in the trash. “Just schedule a filling next week and we’ll get it taken care of.”

“I’ve never had a cavity,” I told the woman at the front desk when I handed her my file.

“It’s okay,” she said, checking my birth date on the folder. “Twenty-three years is a pretty good run.”

Which I thought was valid, so I scheduled the filling and carried on with my life. UNTIL THE DAY OF THE FILLING ARRIVED.

Following this experience I am led to believe that I did not fully understand what a cavity is exactly, so, as is usually my solution for things I don’t understand, I Googled it. (I found some horrifying pictures, so I really don’t recommend Googling the seemingly innocuous word “cavity.”)

After trying to un-see some of the pictures of people’s mouths rotting before my eyes, I have decided it was basically like this:

dental cavity

Poor little guy.

So I went in and the helper/technician/ladyperson led me to my chair. It looked like this:


Then a short Asian kid came in to deliver the paper. Only he wasn’t a ten-year old Asian newspaper delivery boy. He was the dentist who was apparently going to fill my cavity. I was immediately suspicious. Why were they going to let a child perform dental work on me?! He looked like someone who aced everything his fourth grade teacher tossed his way, the type to know his multiplication tables better than I know that catchy Fifty States song I had to learn in fourth grade (I can still sing them all in alphabetical order upon request, in case you were wondering). But even really bright fourth graders don’t know calculus or legit biology yet. Some of them don’t even know where babies come from yet! I’m sure Asian Newspaper Delivery Boy is a fine, upstanding American; that doesn’t alter the fact that I don’t want a prepubescent kid performing dental work on me!

But apparently I had no choice and they leaned me back in the evil dentist chair to meet my fate.

“I’ve never had a cavity,” I told the Asian Newspaper Delivery Boy in a last ditch attempt to worm my way out of the situation.

“What?” he said. He was very quiet.

“I’ve never had a cavity,” I repeated. “So…I’ve never had a filling.”

“Oh,” he said, sounding like he was wearing one of those paper face masks and muttering. Except he wasn’t wearing a mask; he was just muttering. “So you’ve never had any oral injections or anything like that then?”

I looked at him sharply, then back to the helper/technician/ladyperson, then back to him. “What? No.” Who said anything about injections? What was this kid talking about? One second we’re talking about some gunk and a hole in my tooth and the next it’s needles? What the heck???

“Oh,” he said.

Then he leaned me back and pulled open my jaws wide enough to swallow a polar bear whole and dabbed something that tasted like rotten bubble gum toothpaste mixed with bleach onto my gums. “This is just a local anesthetic,” he informed me in that same could-someone-please-turn-up-the-radio-because-it’s-tickling-my-eardrums? tone. “To numb the area.”

I made one of those non-committal “ah” noises that suggests you have heard and comprehend what the person has just told you but could really mean just about anything.

“Okay,” he said, reaching for something on his tray where he was apparently keeping all of his medieval instruments of torture. “Now hold still.”

And people, I swear to you, all of a sudden he had a needle in his hand and before I could do anything my life was flashing before my eyes (it was more likely my eyes widening and then clenching shut and then flying open in horror again and then closing again because I didn’t want to see the needle but that light they put over your head is really bright and made me think the Rapture had come at last) and Asian Newspaper Delivery Boy was easing the needle into my gum for an impossibly long time.

“Just breathe normally,” he said. “And hold still.”

What was he talking about, “hold still”? Breathe normally??? I went into freaking cardiac arrest! I was paralyzed from the bleeding gum down! I couldn’t have moved if I’d wanted to. I felt like I was on one of those unforgiving metal tables you see corpses lying on while they await forensic dissection.

I usually have a lot to say, and three or four ways to say it. While that needle was in my mouth, however, all I could think about was that brutal instrument of drug transmission penetrating my innocent, fleshy pink gums. It went something like this (minus the expletives):


And after about eight thousand years, he withdrew the needle slowly. (You can tell I was legitimately afraid because I lost the ability to punctuate my inner dialogue. It’s like somebody put me on caps lock forever and stole the period and comma off my mental keyboard.)

“Okay,” he said. “Now do you feel tingling in your chin? How about your lips?”

“Um. Sure,” I said. “I guess.” Couldn’t he see I was traumatized?

“You can relax now.”




The technician/helper/ladyperson squirted water into my mouth and then sucked it back out. She made a face. I think my gum was spurting out blood or something. I tried to unclench my hands, but my fingers had entered a rigor mortis-like state while I had my brush with death in the dentist’s torture chair so they weren’t going anywhere.
The Asian Newspaper Delivery Boy poked around my gums with something pointy.

“Can you feel that?” he asked.


“Oh,” he said. “Hm.” Then he sat there and stared at nothing and waited to see if the medicine would work. Then he poked some more and when I could still feel it he whipped out another needle and stabbed me in the mouth again. This one hurt more, which makes very little sense to me since part of my mouth was already numb.  My head started to spin a little bit after he pulled out the needle. I wasn’t sure if it was because all the blood was rushing to my head from lying back so far or because I was in shock due to the torture to which I was being subjected.

When he prepared to give me a third injection I thought about making a run for it. Then I realized I couldn’t even unclench my hands, let alone sit up and bolt for the door. Just as I was thinking that perhaps I ought to simply have a stern discussion with this fourth grader and his needles about the dosage of whatever he was sticking into me, the needle was in my mouth again and I went totally rigid for fear of making it even worse than it already was. After the third injection he deemed me sufficiently numb to continue with the filling. It was at this point that I was thinking to myself what a truly terrible prisoner-of-war I would make, because I would not be able to keep a single secret if the bad guys started shoving needles into my gums. I’d be like, “STOP I’LL TELL YOU ANYTHING. IN FOURTH GRADE I HAD THIS HUGE CRUSH ON–” (Classified. Strictly need-to-know basis.)

Anyway, next the Asian Newspaper Delivery Boy put some kind of evil-looking metal clamp around my tooth and shoved some rubbery-feeling block into my mouth to keep it propped open. What does he think I was, a python in another life? I can’t detach my jaw, buddy! He topped off the whole thing by tenting my mouth, presumably to keep my tongue from flailing around involuntarily and slobbering up everything. I’m not entirely certain. It was hard to tell what was going on since all I could really see was flashing needles and the bright light of the Rapture hovering over my head.

“Raise your left hand if you feel any pain,” he said.

Then he turned on one of those devices that makes people hate the dentist. It sounded like we were in the welding shop, but instead of cutting metal, he was grinding down on my teeth. Which, when you think about it, is basically like the visible bones of your face. At this point I was too dazed to really care and was just glad there were no more needles for now. Take my teeth, I thought, I don’t care. Grind them down. I don’t need them. Just stop before you get to my swollen, bleeding, victimized gums.

He decided to take a break and fiddled with his torture tray for a bit. “Just raise your left hand if you feel any pain,” he reminded me. I sort of wanted to raise my right hand, just to see what would happen. He never told me what it would do if I raised my right hand. Probably get a shot in the middle of my forehead or something to teach me a lesson. But I kept my hands clenched together in my lap the whole time and never deployed the Left Hand Panic Button so I never found out if either hand had any power or if that was just something they tell patients. When it was all over the Asian Newspaper Delivery Boy told me to make an appointment to have a consult and then have my wisdom teeth taken out. LIKE I REALLY TRUST YOU AFTER WHAT YOU JUST DID TO ME, MISTER.

I wasn’t scared of the dentist/dental procedures prior to this experience. I wore braces for two years and went to the orthodontist’s office dutifully each month to floss, brush, and have my braces tightened and admired by my eccentric orthodontic team. I now understand why people equate the dentist’s office with a medieval torture chamber. There are needles in your face and there isn’t even a foot massage or mood music like some kind of New Age spa to justify this indignity. THEY PROP YOUR MOUTH OPEN WITH A RUBBER BLOCK. It’s like an Orwell novel.

Furthermore, I feel deceived by everyone who has ever had a cavity filled and didn’t talk about it so people like me who have gone their whole adult lives (I know it’s not long, but it’s all I’ve got right now so give me a break!) without getting a filling didn’t realize what we were in for with the dungeon and the torture chamber and the underqualified-looking dentist kid with the needles and the drill.

I think of it as the horrifying opposite of kissing. I was barely a teenager anymore by the time I got in on this whole kissing trend. Prior to the experience I was like, hey you kids! What’s all the hullabaloo about this kissing nonsense? And then I got involved in the worldwide phenomenon of kissing someone you like and I was like, oh. Well jolly good to that! Carry on, everyone! Except in this case when people said they didn’t like cavities I thought it was like not enjoying having your teeth cleaned, when they scrape around on your mouth and try to make your gums bleed a little to make a point about how nobody knows how to floss properly. I’m going to say this again: NOBODY TOLD ME THERE WERE NEEDLES INVOLVED. It was like when I first figured out how tampons worked and I was like, WHY IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY WOULD GIRLS DO THAT. I think I was about twelve.

So here I was, eleven years later, horrified about another apparently widespread, first world phenomenon that I had, once again, apparently been totally in the dark about up to this point. I sat in the parking lot of the dental clinic for a bit and slapped and pulled at my numbed face. I called my father and told him that I had just had my first filling and it was literally one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. He laughed at me.

(I really think it was an unfair and paternally unsympathetic response on his part. Look, even his childhood hero, Captain James T. Kirk, didn’t like the dentist:

Kirk dentist

Look how upset he is! He’s totally lost touch with reality. And this guy is a graduate of Starfleet Academy and the captain of the Starship Enterprise so he’s not exactly a wimpy butter bar, okay?)

I’ll say it one more time, people. NO ONE TOLD ME THERE WERE NEEDLES INVOLVED. I legitimately thought needles in the mouth were only necessary for major oral surgery, not some puny filling on what was supposed to be a tiny cavity! It took like three thousand hours for them to do the whole procedure! What was in there, the Grand freaking Canyon?

I tried to put on some Chapstik (the liquid kind, in a tube). It was all melty from sitting in the sun, but hey, no big deal, just use a little less and spread it around, right?


Not being able to feel my face, I lost all sense of where the Chapstik ought to actually be applied and ended up with some on the half of my mouth that could still feel and some on my cheek and dribbling pathetically down to my chin. Struggle bus, ladies and gentlemen. Front row seat on the struggle bus.

When I got back to the motor pool, one of my NCOs looked at me funny, pulling his chin back and scrunching up his face. “You all right, ma’am?” he asked. “You look a little…” Upset? Traumatized? Like half of my face is numb and I have apparently lost the basic skill of applying Chapstik to my dentally-ravaged mouth?

“I’m fine,” I said. “I just had a cavity filled.”

“Oh,” he said. “That sucks.”

He’s right. It does suck. But you know what? He mentioned nothing about needles.



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How to Defend the Dream (To the USMA Class of 2013)

Dear Class of 2013,

CONGRATU-FREAKIN’-LATIONS. After 47 months of literal blood, sweat and tears you have finally made it. (I know the blood, sweat and tears thing is a cliche’, but I think we also all recognize that all three are involved to different extents throughout a cadet career. Gross but true.) It seems like only yesterday you were stinky little new cadets marching your way into the Corps and now you are stinky little lieutenants in the United States Army (just kidding. It really is exciting). You were at the top of the heap and the top of your game at West Point (even if you struggled—because we all did in our own way—you at least figured it out enough to graduate) and now you are back to the bottom of the totem pole in the Big Army.

There was a great article floating around a few weeks ago about effective leadership as a lieutenant, with the most memorable lesson being, “don’t be a douche.” But seriously. (You can read it HERE if you missed it.) Just as none of us would have graduated without working together (cooperate and graduate is no joke if you ask me), I firmly believe that we butter bars should stick together instead of trying so hard to outdo one another. This isn’t actually an entry about how to defend the dream, but in the spirit of cooperate-and-defeat-the-negative-LT-stereotypes, I give you a few of the lessons I have learned in my first year as an officer.


You are going to move a lot in the next year. You’ll leave West Point and go wherever it is you’ll go for grad leave, and then you’ll leave there and go to BOLC, and then you might go to a follow-on school, and then finally you’ll end up at your first duty station. That is a lot of moving.

Last year I moved in May, then in July, then in December, then again in January this year, and now in May. One thing that made it easier was having a lot of suitcases and tubs and trunks to pack stuff in. AND I used several of the boxes that I labeled and shipped off last May because they were still in good enough shape to help me move stuff from one place to another. Packing materials can get expensive if you go through enough of them, so help yourself out and salvage what is salvageable and reuse it while you move three-plus times over the next year.

Also keep your receipts for gas and weigh your car heavy and packed to the brim and also empty as can be, because the travel office at your gaining unit will use them to defray the cost of a DITY (formerly the do it yourself move, now a PPM, or personally procured move) since they tax it at about a bazillion percent.


When I first got to my unit, the 1LT XO was the acting commander. I had this stupid internal crisis where I was like, “Do I need to salute him? Do I have to call him sir?” Because I thought maybe it was a thing where you saluted him and used rank because he was the commander. But there’s not. So luckily I did not salute him and we call each other by our first names and it’s not a big deal and nobody in my unit ever figured out that I was naïve enough to even wonder if I needed to salute my XO.

There is another 1LT in my unit, however, who makes a big fuss about differentiating between first and second lieutenants. Wrong-o, Miss Thang. Granted, I respect that she’s been commissioned for two years longer than me, deployed for eight months, and has more experience. But am I going to call you “first lieutenant?” Am I going to appreciate it when you emphasize that I am a “second lieutenant?” No. I am not.

Just be aware that there are some first lieutenants out there with a chip on their shoulder. Don’t let the bastards get you down; they’ll get promoted soon enough and go away to career course or to rot on staff somewhere as junior captains.


I know it’s about more than ratings and OERs and other stupid stuff, but sometimes in order to take care of your job and your Soldiers, you have to put on a face for certain individuals. For instance, when your rater or your senior rater asks how it’s going, they really mean, “Are you ruining the maintenance in this brigade? Are you totally lost? Are your NCOs helping you? Are you as clueless as you look?” and not, “I’d really like to hear about your goals and dreams and help you find the perfect job in the Army.” Granted, some commanders honestly do want to know about your major and your academic and personal goals. Other commanders consider you a collected set of statistics that they can gather from your ORB and don’t really care about your grad school aspirations or if/when you plan to start a family. I know West Point jammed it into our heads that leaving out any information is lying by omission, but seriously – some people just don’t want to know the truth, especially if the truth about your aspirations involves opera and novel-writing instead of Airborne School and battalion command (oh wait, that’s me, isn’t it?). Sometimes it sucks, but parts of the job are a game, and you’ve got to know when to play along.

Seek mentorship in other places if you end up with someone in charge of you who is like this. Some of the best help I’ve gotten has been from people in the ’09 year group who are starting to get the hang of this whole Army thing and are willing to point you in the right direction for grad school options and duty assignments that won’t show up in your normal career progression unless you seek them out yourself.


In normal society it is considered impolite to ask people their age or weight. In the Army, people want to know your stats. I am considering making a trading card for myself so I can just hand it out when people start asking me if I’m married/if I have kids/how fast I can run/when I was born/where I grew up/my shoe size/if I’ve had all my shots. I also had this idea that if I kept a low profile and didn’t wear my class ring, people wouldn’t think I was a douche. Unfortunately, “what is your commissioning source?” has been demanded of me more times than I can remember. The reactions have varied, and I have rarely correctly predicted what they will be.

For a while I was distressed by all the stereotypes and preconceived notions. But you can’t let it bother you; it’s a waste of time. Some people don’t like women/men/white people/black people/short people/tall people/West Pointers/officers and that’s just the way they are. Some of the best advice I ever got was from one of my former sponsors who retired as a colonel last year after over thirty years of service.

Be part of the solution.

That got its own line because I think it’s that important. My sponsor told me her TAC had told her this after she came back to West Point after CTLT at the beginning of her cow year wanting to resign. He said she could quit, or she could be an instrument of cure. Eventually she recognized that she would have opportunities to make the Army better. The higher you go, the more you control. That control gives you even more opportunities to demonstrate wise leadership as you grow into a competent, mature, level-headed officer. Don’t throw up your hands in despair too soon. Which leads into my next point…


This is sort of a “don’t forget the little people” kind of thing. Being a lieutenant is this weird in-between stage where you don’t feel like you have any real authority, but you actually have an impact on people’s lives. I have learned a lot in the last year about both my technical field and the Army as a whole from both formal schooling and independent research, but some of the most valuable lessons have come from just listening to people. And I’m not just talking about OPDs with sergeants major or generals, but from hearing the stories of other officers, civilians, NCOs and Soldiers who have been around the Army a lot longer than me.

Remember how badly it feels when you are shat on by someone with more rank or influence than you and never treat anyone the same way. When you are on the other side of the desk you will remember how it feels to be powerless, poorly treated, and disenfranchised, and will have the opportunity to do better than your predecessors. There is a lot of poor leadership out there—not just in the Army, but everywhere—so don’t let yourself get caught in the trap of punishing people for the crappy leadership of those who came before you.

People are desperate for someone to listen to them. I have seen people’s demeanors change from tired, frustrated and defeatist to if not upbeat, determined and ready to work—all because I stopped what I was doing for five minutes and listened to what they had to say. My sponsor reminded me that every Soldier you touch in a positive way will have a ripple effect. Just remember that you might not always see the ripples. As one wise old sergeant major once told me, “Being a jerk doesn’t make you a hard ass; it just makes you an asshole.”


This is your one time to ask really, incredibly naïve questions and get away with it. People don’t expect lieutenants to know much of anything, so if you have burning questions, ask them. Or if you get really lost, ask for help. Lieutenants are usually lost anyway. I saw this most clearly during inprocessing.

At Fort Hood, you do most of your inprocessing at this hideous three-story building on main post called the Copeland Center. They give you a long checklist of places to go and things to do and paperwork to turn in to places that you didn’t know exist and send you on your merry way. The privates, who are pretty much as new to the Army as you are, are herded around New Cadet-style by an NCO who tells them exactly where to go and what to do. I was a little jealous of them at first, but then I realized that nobody cared about how quickly or slowly I inprocessed as long as I was finished within the designated time period. I also realized that nobody minded giving me directions or telling me to get lost when I was in the wrong place. In fact, most people saw so many ACU-clad bodies moving around their work space that they all blended together after a while. I asked the same woman three separate, stupid questions and she never seemed to realize that I was the same lieutenant. I know this because the third time she sighed and said, “Man, they really don’t tell you new officers anything, do they? You are the second person to ask me this today.” Either someone else who looks like me had the same question or she was just really confused. So if you’re worried about looking stupid while you’re still figuring things out, don’t be. I asked a lot of stupid questions for the next couple of days, finished inprocessing a day and a half early, and had the extra time free to do as I pleased.

Being a second lieutenant is basically a license to fumble through the Army for a few months. Having said that, I think it is also important to bear in mind that sometimes you must simply –


Most people are willing to assume the best about you unless you prove them wrong. Granted, they may tease you a little (one of my NCOs and I have a running joke about a silver spoon because he said that I was probably spoiled rotten as a kid and then at West Point…HA) and make some stereotypical LT jokes, but generally speaking, people have been receptive to my leadership when I am equally receptive to learning from their experience.

When I first arrived at my unit I felt totally lost and wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to be doing for much of the day. So I spent a lot of time just trying to look busy, because I didn’t want to build resentment against me for everyone else being busy while I was standing around empty-handed. And you know what? It worked out just fine. Another lieutenant told me not to sweat it because I’d be busy soon enough. He was right. Sometimes the transition time is awkward while you’re figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing, and before you know it you’ll have plenty on your plate. So when you’re not sure, ask around (even if you’re just asking the Google) and give it some time; you’ll figure it out. People will assume you’re busy and you’ll prove them right sooner than you think.


I don’t know how many of you will see this since you’re all off frolicking in your adolescence in various corners of the great, wide world (as you should be!) but hopefully these short lessons will make your transition from cadet to butter bar a little easier. Maybe some of it seems obvious to you, but a few of these things I’ve learned in difficult or awkward ways and hopefully sharing them will help you to avoid the mistakes I have made.

I must extend congratulations to 2012 – we are no longer the most junior lieutenants in the Army! (If anyone else has any other helpful information or good anecdotes, please feel free to share them in the comments or send them to me and I’ll do another entry as a compilation.) And congratulations again to the Class of 2013 on making it through those 47 months in gray. Welcome to the green, now get out there and defend the dream.

You’re welcome for the rhyme.

Very Respectfully,

Kelley, Butter Bar

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