This is the first word I can actually remember learning.

When I was a kid, my dentist was my Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob was an urbane and cultured man, prominent in the professional dental organizations in Seattle and highly educated in the mode of the early 20th century. My main memory of him, outside the dental office, was sitting in the library of his grand old house on Queen Anne, in a smoking jacket and cravat, a brandy by his side, reading about the details of steamboat traffic on the ante-bellum Mississippi River or about early photography or the works of some classic historian.

His office had a marvelous view of Mount Rainier; he claimed, in 1949, to have seen from it several mysterious objects whiz past the mountain and then take a sharp, impossible 90 degree turn and zip out of sight faster than he thought anything could go. But if you tried to get him to say he’d seen a UFO, he’d just smile. He was not going to be dragged into anything that was not reasoned, scientific, provable.

I grew up in the years before fluoride, either in the water or the toothpaste, so pretty much from the eruption of my adult teeth I started gathering a mouth full of metal. Look Ma, Cavities! was the mantra of my dental youth. Uncle Bob was gentle, and luckily Novocain was already around, but every trip required bravery. Those were the days when drills still went ratta-ratta-ratta, not zeeeeeeeeeeee. To reward a session without tears, Uncle Bob would give me, at the end, a little box filled with a blob of mercury, which I could shake so that it broke apart into a zillion little droplets, then coalesce back into a shining silver bean. I hate to say that I often broke the blob apart with my finger, too—those were times filled with the innocence of ignorance.

And those were also the days before little suction tubes that the dentists stick in your mouth to suck up water and blood and bits of your tongue. Instead, next to the dental chair was a little round basin with water always swirling around it. (Did it swirl the other way in Australia, I wondered, thinking of my science book. I always meant to go see, but never did.) After the ratta-ratta-ratta and the squirt of water, everything stopped while I had to struggle upright in the old dental chair and lean over the basin.

“Expectorate” Uncle Bob would say. And I did.