Insert “lack of wisdom” pun here.

Confession: yesterday was my first visit to the dentist since I was a child.

Most of my 20-something readers, particularly those who live in New York as well, will understand how this came about. Low pay, high student loans, and high costs of living collude to make you really prioritize where your limited funds go, and by the time you save enough to visit the sort of doctor you want to see, something goes wrong to rob you blind. Oh, and I don’t have dental insurance, so paying $100 just for the pleasure of another person’s company feels much more like a less fun version of prostitution.

Also, I killed my dentist when I was a kid, so there’s that. But that’s a story for another time.*

Anyway, I was having some pain on the right side of my mouth. Like any Brooklyn cliche, I assumed that my everything bagel had just lodged some sort of seed or topping back there. I brushed and flossed vigorously, doing my best to ignore the pain. That worked for a few days.

Wednesday was of course A Day. I forgot my cell phone at home, the trains were all messed up, and, naturally, I couldn’t chew with the right side of my mouth. After scrambling to find any sort of dentist who didn’t seem to charge a thousand dollars to yank out a tooth, I managed to book an appointment for Thursday online. The only problem: you have to enter a PIN number texted to your phone. Yes, even without making an appointment through my phone, I needed my phone. My friend Meghan kindly obliged to receive the text for me, and I was on my way.

Fast forward to Thursday. The pain had certainly gotten worse thanks to an ill-advised gum chewing test, so I was relieved when I entered the dental practice at 5 PM sharp. The soundtrack of Journey, Kelly Clarkson, and Pink did its best to make me grind my teeth, but I resisted the impulse. It was only when I was in the dentist’s chair that I began to really worry. Actually shaking levels of worry. I don’t know what really got to me other than the absolute lack of sharp tools out. I was prepared for nearly anything, but to be thwacked repeatedly by blunt objects inside my suffering mouth seemed too punishing to imagine.

Of course the dentist expressed dismay over my lack of dental visits, though I pointed out I have no insurance. After declaring an extra cusp on one of my molars “very cool,” she found the offending wisdom tooth. My first, even at the tender age of 26, had become abscessed.

“Your appointment’s only for fifteen minutes,” she reported. (Thanks, technology!) “I can hook you up with some antibiotics and painkillers and have you come back next week, or we can extract the tooth right now. We can do that in fifteen minutes easily.”

I considered my options. After days of favoring the left side of my face, a little narcotic bliss was tempting. But if your tooth is dying, it’s dying, and there’s no point in adding hundreds of dollars to an already outrageous bill just for a week of putting off the inevitable. “Let’s take it out,” I said.

My dentist seemed surprised, but she was quick with three needles to numb the area. I haven’t experienced all that much pain in my life I suppose, but the worst may just be the sensation of needles slipping into my gums and then pumping in the liquid. I felt like giant bubbles were swelling up inside my mouth. “You’re very brave,” the dentist said. Very stupid, I felt. A single tear fell along my cheek like that fabled Native American in the commercial where he observes litter upon his precious land.

My tooth had grown in fully, so it was a matter of prying it out. You would think there would be some delicate way of doing this. No. Instead the dentist pushes, pulls, wiggles, wedges, and finally yanks it out. Fortunately mine went out in one piece, so that was it. Fifteen minutes and $328 of my hard-earned money. For the record, the $8 part came from an extra fee to use my debit card. Because obviously I should carry hundreds in cash at all times.

I don’t know if I am “brave” after all or just particularly lucky, but I haven’t needed prescription-level painkillers (that the dentist didn’t give me anyway) and feel decent other than the disgust I have from the coppery taste of blood lingering in my mouth. The dentist wants me to come back to deal with those cavities I’ve been ignoring forever, but we’ll have to see what the wallet says about all that…

The Fallen.

Recently I read an article that claimed it was an inherent contradiction to support a nation’s troops without supporting war and other military efforts. I beg to differ. “War” is such a high concept. We declare wars on ideas, wars on objects, wars on countries, but you can’t attack anything that nebulous. You have to attack people instead. Some people do not think that human life is the appropriate price to pay for the mere potential of defeating “drugs” or “terrorism” or whatever.

But what our society or government or military disagrees with will never be fully eliminated. There will always be some corner of the earth that holds another way of life. It’s not necessarily the existence of evil in the universe; difference just has a way of metastasizing. Eventually a few people decide that many will have to make that fight physical in order to seek some precarious resolution. Because of this, we will always have soldiers.

We’re lucky to live in a place and time where and when people choose to join the military. Becoming a soldier is an exercise of free will. Who can’t behind choice, even if it’s not the one you would make yourself?

My cousin Cory chose to serve. His time was nearly up, but he made a choice to stay so someone else could get home sooner. He chose one dinner option over another. He chose where he sat in a mess hall. He chose not to get up and swap out his meal for pizza. It was a day like many others, except this time, a man entered the tent and blew away Americans and Iraqis alike.

That was 2004. Two days ago, two bombs went off in the same town of Mosul, killing three and injuring dozens, including children. I don’t point this out to make any political point. These are just the tragic facts.

Memorial Day has become a little more difficult these past nine years. We’re all taught to honor fallen soldiers, but in my childhood, such a concept seemed so distant, like remembering men and women who had served decades before in the World Wars, Vietnam, Korea. Now people I grew up with are making those sacrifices. Today I’m doing laundry, watching Netflix, typing away on my computer and considering whether I should go out to do anything today. Some no longer have the luxury of the mundane as I do.

The numbers are harrowing. They become so large that they cease to make sense as faces, names, years of love and hobbies and favorite bits of entertainment, personal grudges and heartbreaks and chipped shoulders. Cory never saw his beloved Monty Python hit Broadway with Spamalot or Alex Trebek ditch the mustache he sported for so many years on “Jeopardy!” He didn’t even get to see the age of thirty.

My hope today is that people don’t forget. I hope they look ahead and make informed decisions, those that factor in the ultimate price. I hope that fewer children grow up to lose the babysitter who cunningly tricked twins into giving up their two whole peanut butter sandwiches in favor of one sandwich that had been neatly cut into triangles. I hope, if only for a day, people with power remember the cost of a human life. I hope they remember any name at all rather than a number.

The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire…

I had a Bad Day on Tuesday. You know the sort: when you’re pushed to the outer edges of your sanity by work, irritated by certain personalities, screwed over by the volatile randomness of the universe, and forced to make a difficult choice: pizza, wine, or both to emotionally drown your sorrow? (For what it’s worth, I chose pizza.) Wednesday was meant to be different, with its calmer nature, nighttime formula sinus medication, and West Wing marathon. Then I heard my roommate.

“Casey, I don’t want to worry you, but I think part of the building’s on fire.”

Even with my sinus situation, one sniff was all it took for me to confirm that the smoky scent I picked up was not coming from my overworked, cheap space heater that resented still being cranked up high in April. I did not have time to finish my episode of The West Wing; I had to get ready to evacuate. I changed from bedtime shorts to yoga pants, as though having my ankles cold would be that much better than having my shins chilly as well. I mentally high-fived myself for having resisted the urge to take my bra off before 10:30.

Then I packed. Okay, I threw my laptop and phone into my purse, and that’s it. Looking around my tiny lofted room, I saw precious little that meant a lot to me. Sure, I’d be upset if I lost all of my clothes, books, CDs, and mementos, but let’s face it, they are things. I took my means of communicating with the outside world and nothing more. (This is a lie. I grabbed my Kindle, but it was plugged into my computer already since it was charging, so it just kind of happened, okay?)

My roommates scrambled to pack up their cats in the meantime. Five of them, to be precise. In four carriers. Our sixth cat, Cinderella, resident eater of souls and vicious old crone, will gouge out the corneas of anyone who dares to spell the word “carrier,” so we left her upstairs until we figured out why there was smoke billowing past our window.

Then the power went out.

We formed a pathetic, shuffling parade of sad people with sadder cats and moved into the hall. (I bitterly noted that the hall had electricity still.) There, a neighbor told us that a section of the roof was on fire. There were no evacuations happening, and the firefighters were letting residents come and go as they pleased. It was roughly freezing outside, so we decided not to stand out on the street with our brood, being silently judged for having four cats even though we actually have six and thus deserve more scorn. Back into the apartment we went with our unhappy pets to wait. And wait. And wait.

At quarter til midnight, I decided to risk my iPhone battery to use my flashlight app and pack a bag to go to my sister’s. I don’t need power through the night, but the possibility of a cold morning shower in the dark was not tempting to me. I would do the walk of shame with my bare ankles to my sister’s place if it meant getting off to work with marginally less greasy hair. As soon as I walked downstairs with my backpack (change of clothes, phone charger, and that’s it), the power was restored. Hipsters cheered on the firefighters in the streets, and then they were gone. I reassured the Internet that I survived, then gave in to the smothering embrace of the PM sinus medicine.

My kitten woke me up at 6 to fetch. That bitch.

Endings, beginnings, things, and ings.

I am the age now that my cousin was when he died.

“Died” feels like the wrong word to use to describe what happened to him. “Killed” sounds too much like murder, like something personal, though it was. He was an American and a soldier. Any other fact about his life was irrelevant. He was part of a team that dismantled bombs. A man sat down next to him and detonated explosives that killed more than twenty people.

This was December 21, 2004. I had just finished my first semester of college and was exhausted from the long drive from Cleveland back to Wheeling. All I wanted to do was goof around on the Internet, but these were the wonder days of dial-up. My cousin Scott had left a voicemail on our Internet Answering Machine (remember those?) asking my mother to call him back. She did on her cell phone, sitting in my room looking shocked. She waited until she hung up to let loose the tears and say, “Cory’s dead.”

There’s no going back to the moment before holding such knowledge, when your only concern is how slowly things are loading. You only get to look forward to the next moment when the things that draw the most attention are frivolous again.

I’ve lost other relatives since 2004, people I have loved very much, but the thought of Cory still hits me hard. He’d coveted the chance to join the Army and then one day get a job at the Pentagon. He struggled for years to slim down and tone up enough to enlist. But I don’t really give that much thought. When I think of him, I think of the guy who had stacks of VHS recordings in his room, Monty Python and the Holy Grail  being the most influential in my young life. I think of him watching an early airing of “Jeopardy!” so he could watch the show again in the living room at my grandparents’ house, impressing everyone with his intelligence. I think of one of our last conversations in person when we argued over who sang the song “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” (It was Deep Blue Something, like I said. Sorry, Cory. Your refrain of “You’re wrong” didn’t change the facts.)

Cory was the first one who was part of “my” generation in my family to go to college. He liked history and mysteries, and we called him Mr. A+ Man because he seemed so smart. He made it okay to be a bit nerdy and to have aspirations. We were all going to grow up and have these incredible, far-flung careers, as college and our modest upbringings had assured us since we worked so hard. I’ve still never left the country. He came back in a box, and we were only ever allowed to see his mangled dogtags. The rest was far too grim, even for his parents. You can study, but there will still be guns. You can make the grade, but wars will claim victims who never committed an act of violence. How do you deal with the darkness out in the world without making that grief a daily part of you?

You live. There’s really no other rational choice, and better yet, it comes naturally. It may take weeks or longer, but you cannot live in isolation because we simply aren’t made that way. Something will break through. It could be a pet, a joke, a favorite dish. For me, it was a song. I don’t care how many times it’s been played or covered, I will be forever grateful for Snow Patrol’s “Run” being released when it was. The pairing of “light up, light up” with “as if you have a choice” that jarred me from lingering on the past. I fell for the song, the album, and the band, and I suddenly had so much to look forward to.

So even though this time of year gets me down, I’m going to use it as fuel. I’ll watch Monty Python, but I won’t forget to laugh. I’ll listen to Final Straw but not any less or more than usual. I’ll look back on the six times I heard “Run” live this year and be grateful for all the friends who have come into my life during these concerts who I didn’t know eight years ago. I’m looking forward because 26 is a fraction of a life, and I won’t know how much of my own existence it will add up to be until it no longer matters.