A couple of weeks ago I received a lovely e-mail from a man in Texas, who wanted to share some thoughts about sports and … blah, blah, blah, blah.
Truth be told, I don’t remember the words or sentiment. But I do remember this: Glenn Stern was a dentist. And, through nearly 300 Quazes, I’ve really, really, really wanted to interview a dentist.
I asked Glenn.
He said yes.
Here we are.
I don’t actually know if Glenn Stern is the finest dentist in Canton, Texas. I don’t know if he makes gums bleed; if he has a sadistic cackle with every terrified child; if he loves sharp tools and soft tongues. What I do know is that he’s the coolest dentist I’ve ever spoken with, and that this Q&A is one of my all-time favorites.
Glenn Stern, you are the 270th Quaz. Drill away!
JEFF PEARLMAN: You’re a dentist. I’ve always wanted to have a dentist here so I can ask this delightful question: What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen in your career? Details, please …
GLENN STERN: I was on a mission trip in Jamaica and we were working on men in a low-security prison. A guy came in with an abscess in his front upper lip area. It was from a tooth. It was the size of a golf ball, at least. All full of pus. Only thing to do there is to try to numb it and then drain it. Your imagination can do the rest …
J.P: When I was growing up, a trip to the dentist was terror. I feared the inevitable pain, the sound of the drill, etc. Lots of shaking, tears, etc. Yet it strikes me that, for kids growing up today, the dentist doesn’t mean pain. Technology seems to have changed the game. But has it? What I mean is, do kids even know the fear the dentist in 2016? Are they afraid of you?
G.S.: In our office at least we try to get them in early on for a really simple, low-stress appointment. Show them that we are friendly, take a look at their teeth, give them a cool brush and go from there. As far as how many kids are afraid, a big factor in that equation is the parents. If a kid has parents who tell him that coming to see the dentist is going to be no big deal, you’re going to do great, etc, then usually the kid comes in and does great. If a kid has parents who tell him horror stories, siblings who tell them horror stories, and the parents are anxious when they bring the child in, guess what? The child is going to be anxious. That’s not 100 percent of the time, but that’s the biggest factor in how kids do and if they are afraid.
You could probably say that about a lot of things with kids, right? Which kids do better in school, read better, do better in sports? Generally the ones whose parents read, play sports, etc.
J.P.: I know you’re from Kerrville, Texas; know your practice is in Canton; know you attended Texas A&M. But what’s the path? How does one decide he wants to be a dentist? Why? I mean, from afar I can’t imagine a kid thinking, “Yes! Dentistry!” So why? How? When?
G.S.: I don’t think any kid stays up late dreaming of dentistry, either. It’s not pro basketball and it’s not glamorized on TV like medicine or law. For me, it was a long, circuitous (did I use that word correctly?) route. I always wanted to be something in science, something in the healthcare field. Our family had a lot of friends who were dentists and it always seemed like a nice career. I was also always the kid who made model airplanes, so I liked making stuff and working with small, intricate things. I went to college thinking I either wanted to be a pediatrician or a dentist. Then around my sophomore year, I got the idea to be a physical therapist. It was the “hot” job field back then, (early 1990s) and it was associated with sports, and so I decided to pursue that. I knew that it was the most competitive field as far as getting into graduate programs, but I plowed ahead. Long story short, I didn’t get into a single physical therapy program. (Memo to the kids out there: if a type of graduate school takes an average 3.7 GPA to get in, and you have a 3.3, you may want to have a backup plan). After four great, fun years in college, my parents were gracious enough to let me move back in and figure out what I was going to do with my life.
For you Seinfeld fans out there, I was George Costanza—”Hello, my name is George. I’m unemployed and live with my parents.” Luckily my parents were great and were not the Costanzas. My dad had a friend who was a dentist, and one day I guess he was telling him about his 22-year-old son who was back home. His friend, Dr. Jim Stokes, told him to tell me to come by the office and see him. I went by and we ended up talking for a couple of hours. What came out of that was a part-time job doing whatever he could find for me to do, and he helped me get my application together for dental school. I realized after talking with him that dentistry could still be an option for me, so we went for it. I took the DAT test (entrance exam for dentistry) and did really well on it. I sent my applications in for the three Texas schools two days before the deadline. This was in the fall of 1995. All three Texas schools had already started filling their classes, so it was a longshot. Dr. Stokes wrote my recommendation letter and we waited. I interviewed in Houston and San Antonio in December but it was just too late in the process and they were pretty much full. Then on a Friday in January the phone rings and it’s a lady at Baylor telling me they are doing one more round of interviews on Monday and somebody got sick and would I like to come? Before she was done asking I had the car loaded and was headed to Dallas. The interview went great and a couple weeks later I got an acceptance letter. So about six months after moving back home with no idea what I was going to do, I had an acceptance letter in hand to one of the best dental schools in the country.
Kind of like John Daly in the 1991 PGA. Somebody gets hurt, he gets an alternate spot, and the next thing you know he’s won the thing. Or Kurt Warner barely making the Rams, Trent Green goes down, and before you know it he’s won the Super Bowl. Any other rags-to-riches sports metaphors out there?
After graduation I joined a group practice in Canton, about an hour east of Dallas. Our office is called Legacy Dental Group and I think we’re as good as any place in the country. It’s a dream situation with two other exceptional dentists, we have specialists on site, and I’ve been here ever since. It’s strange to think I’ve had the same job at the same place for 16 years, and I probably will for as long as I work, but it’s just a great situation.
My wife was somebody I knew in college and she was in law school in Dallas when I moved there. She’s gorgeous, smart, likes sports too and we fit together perfectly. We “re-met” if that is a word, in the fall of 1996 in Dallas, and got married less than a year later. Nineteen years later we are still married and have two great kids, and I still have to pinch myself sometimes. She was a huge Cowboy fan in the 1990s—Aikman especially—and I’ve been trying to get her to read “Boys Will Be Boys.” I know she would like it.
So pretty much all that I am doing right now is from Dr. Stokes giving me a chance to work for him back in 1995. I still remember him telling me, “Let’s send your applications in and see what happens.” I don’t think he really needed a 22-year-old guy coming to his office every day and trying to look busy, but he felt sorry for me and gave me a chance. I think anybody who has had any kind of success in any field can look back and point to that one person who gave him a chance when there really wasn’t any reason to.
I’m really thankful for dentistry. It’s a job, and it’s a tough job. You wear a lot of hats, particularly if you own your own practice, like my partners and I do. But you have the chance to do a lot of great things for people, and compared to other professions, like medicine or law, you have a lot more control over your hours.
J.P.: What’s the deal with bad breath? I feel like I’ve known people who eternally have bad breath. Are there times there’s nothing one can do about it? Is it an eternal damnation?
G.S.: Lots of causes. Most typical is smoking, poor oral hygiene, which together lead to gum disease, which makes even more bad breath. Another cause, although less likely, are other health conditions, and/or medications. But usually it’s typical oral hygiene. Brush your tongue, by the way. Sounds weird but that helps. Not that it’s you, or anything, or it’s the “I’m asking for a friend” thing …
J.P.: When people are talking to you are you fixated on their teeth? Like, are you eternally zeroed in on the mouth?
G.S.: I really try not to. I try to leave work at work, mentally. In a social situation where I meet new people, especially out of town, etc, I don’t tell people I am a dentist unless they ask. I’m not ashamed of it or anything, and I’m glad to help, but it usually leads to uncomfortable conversations that usually include the following:
“Oh, I hate dentists”
“Oh, I had this dentist once who pulled a tooth and had to put his knee in my chest”
Like I said, for some reason dentistry hasn’t gotten the pub on TV that law and medicine have. No LA Law, ER, Boston Legal … yet. George Clooney or Brad Pitt playing a dentist on TV who’s an awesome guy would change this whole public perception thing pretty quick, right?
J.P.: What’s the tell-tale oral sign of a cigarette smoker? How truly bad is smoking for someone’s mouth? And do you see a noticeable drop in the number of smokers you see now, as opposed to a decade ago?
G.S.: Just the odor, the dark teeth, the gums. It’s really bad for the gums. It contributes a lot to gum disease which in severe cases is what makes people lose their teeth. It really ramps up your odds for getting oral cancer. FYI, more people lose their teeth from gum disease than from decay. As far as the number of smokers, we still see quite a few. I thought for a while that was due to being in a rural area, but when we visited New York City I saw a lot of people smoking there, too. I think people are just going to do what they are going to do, no matter how obvious it is that it is bad for them.
J.P.: As a native New Yorker who lives in California, I’ve sorta developed a negative take on Texas. I mean no offense, but I sorta picture a whole bunch of Rick Perry types: Fake struts, climate change denying, God in history books, etc. Tell me what I’m missing.
G.S.: If you’ve never been to Texas and depended on what you see in TV, media, movies, etc. for your picture of Texas, then I don’t blame you for your impression. The media doesn’t do Texas any favors—J.R. Ewing included. I’ll tell you that Texas is a lot more complex than that, just like not everybody who lives in New York City is a certain way, or everybody who lives in California is a pot-smoking communist. Texas is more politically conservative than New York or Cali, that’s for sure. But its major cities are just as diverse (in every way) as big cities anywhere else. Fake struts on pickup trucks? Probably guilty, in more rural areas. Lots of pickups and a fair amount of ones that have been “modified.” although in my demographic (the 40-something dad) we generally don’t try to do anything stupid to our pickup trucks. Climate change denying? I think that goes along with the political landscape here, but again, in the big cities, especially Austin, you’re going to find people with a broad spectrum of views. God in history books? My wife is on the local school board and to my knowledge we don’t have anything controversial in our textbooks. I think you would like Texas, and if you are ever in Dallas-Fort Worth I’ll come over and buy you dinner. I used to have a pickup truck but don’t any more, or I’d drive you around and give you the full experience. I had a couple but then realized I didn’t really ever use the bed for anything, so I got a Tahoe. It’s still an SUV but not quite the emotionally charged, classical Texan vehicle that is the pickup truck.
Texas is pretty unique in that it was its own country back in the day, and I think most people who live here have more state pride than people in other states. I don’t see a lot of people in Delaware being really vocal about how much they love Delaware, and what a kickass state Delaware is, but maybe they do. Joe Biden’s from there, right?
I will tell you that it is very different from either the northeast or Cali. It is BIG, and has several big cities with a lot of wide-open spaces and small towns. My son and I went to Big Bend National Park last spring break. It was a 10-hour drive … and we never left Texas. Personally, we have the best of both worlds: a small town that is an hour from Dallas and 90 minutes from DFW Airport. You can fly nearly anywhere in the world nonstop from DFW.
Just a footnote—Our family has been to New York City several times, and one thing I love about that area and hate about here is public transportation. If you want to live in Texas, you have to drive, and drive a lot, every day. There’s just no way around it. I love how in New York City (and I would assume it’s like this in other big northeastern cities) you don’t even have to have a car. You can walk and use public transportation. You can ride the train into New York City from an hour or two outside the city. I can’t tell you how much I wish I could get on a train, sit for an hour reading the paper, and get off in downtown Dallas, or in Arlington where the Rangers play, etc. I don’t know why it happened up there and why it didn’t happen here. Dallas does have some light rail now in place but It’s nothing like up north. Is that a reflection on the political differences—conservative individualism versus a more collective approach? I don’t know, but it seems like an apt metaphor. Regardless, I wish we had more of it here.
J.P.: My friend once dated a man who drank six two-liter bottles of Diet Coke PER DAY. How bad is this for teeth? Why?
G.S.: Really bad. Even being Diet Coke with no real sugar, there’s a lot of acid. The same kind of acid we use to clean/condition teeth before we bond a filling to it, is in soft drinks.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
G.S.: Greatest moment: The times when you take care of somebody and you can tell that it changed his/her life. I had a guy who we did a bunch of work on tell me a few weeks ago, “This work changed my life, how I see myself, how I feel about myself.” You can’t beat that. Now, most average days you don’t get that. It’s a job just like anything else. I mean, how many times does somebody tell you that “The Bad Guys Won” changed their life? But occasionally you do.
Worst? There are a couple that I probably shouldn’t share in a public setting, but in the “bordering on cheesy” category, I will say the “worst day” was the best day … the day back in college when I got multiple rejection letters to physical therapy schools on the same day. They were stacked on top of each other in the mailbox. But what turned out to be a terrible thing led to where I am today, so that turned out to be good. Like that scene in City Slickers where they are asking each other their worst and best day, and Bruno Kirby does the whole “same day” thing.
J.P.: When you accidentally cut someone’s mouth, are you required by some sort of medical conviction to immediately fess up? Because I feel like I’ve been cut 100 times, and no one ever says a damn thing.
G.S.: I always fess up. The mouth heals really quick and in a day, maybe, any little nick or cut is healed. I can’t stand having a guilty conscience!
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH GLENN STERN:
• My wife is watching the Real Housewives of Orange County. It seems like they have photos of Tom cheating on his fiancé. Thoughts?: Hate to tell you but I’ve never watched that show. I’ve never watched a lot of reality TV … until recently. We are hooked on “Lone Star Law,” a show on animal planet that follows Texas game wardens around. You want to see rural Texas and think we are a bunch of fools? Watch that show. The people these game wardens deal with are truly amazing. Set your DVR and enjoy. For the record, we aren’t all like the poachers and illegal hunters on the show. The game wardens are great and a couple are from our area and we know them personally. Shout out to wardens Herchmann and Stapleton.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Jonathan Franzen, Martha Stewart, merry go rounds, Chicago, “Stealing Home,” Edwin McCain, popsicles, Andrew Jackson, Lionel Richie: Lionel Richie, merry go rounds, popsicles, Andrew Jackson, Chicago, Stealing Home, Jonathan Franzen, Martha Stewart, Edwin McCain. That song … ugh.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: We went to Cozumel a few years ago with our entire office staff. Cozumel was right on the edge of a hurricane but they decided to take us anyway. Never thought we would crash but we flew in clouds the whole time, dropped out of the sky, and landed really quick in the rain. The runway is right by the water and when you are coming in it’s water, water, water, and then runway. I have a weird peace when flying, though. You don’t have any control and there’s nothing you can do, so I just don’t get nervous.
• Five coolest dental instruments: Soft tissue laser, my magnification glasses, digital camera that shows the tooth up close, Digital X-rays, fiber optic light that helps me see real good.
• One question you would ask Al Roker were he here right now?: Is Bryant Gumbel as arrogant as he seems on TV, or is a pretty nice guy? He seems like a sanctimonious know-it-all on Real Sports. Maybe that’s just an act.
• The next president of the United States will be?: The way Trump is going, Hillary. Hillary is the equivalent of the New England Patriots representing the AFC in Super Bowl XX. A bad candidate from a bad group of candidates who is ripe for the picking. The Republicans choosing Trump is the political equivalent of the NFC getting together and sending the 2-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to New Orleans in 1986 instead of the Bears, or the Giants, or the Niners, or … you get my point. I don’t think the Republicans had a Chicago Bears to choose, but they could have done better. I think with a solid candidate she gets beaten.
• I saw two cockroaches today while walking through LA. Should I have stepped on them or let them live their lives?: Classic Texas answer—crush ‘em. Classic Cali answer—live and let live. Personally, I’d let them live on the street but crush them if they were in my house.
• In exactly 19 words, make the case for the Jolly Green Giant: Fun logo for a random product that would never make it today due to somehow being offensive to vegetables.
• You’re pretty deep into the JFK assassination. Was Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone? Why or why not?: Man, I go back and forth here. I’ve seen the recent specials that show the magic bullet could have happened. I get that. I still have a hard time believing that one guy who did not seem all that bright just decided one day to do this, and he just happened to work at the exact spot that would let him shoot the president as he rode by in an open vehicle. I mean, it just seems too easy. And that last shot on the Zapruder film, it sure LOOKS like it’s from the front. Was it the mafia, military industrial complex, or the CIA? Don’t know. Loved the movie JFK but I know a lot of that is just fiction. But how about that Donald Sutherland “General X” scene at the Lincoln Memorial where he just goes on and on in one take? Probably my favorite movie scene of all time.
• Without looking anything up, list every David Bowie song you know: Let’s Dance was big in junior high, and then I know the other one that Vanilla Ice stole to make Ice Ice Baby. Under Pressure?