Friday, March 25, 2011

"Seals of Approval"

By Jerry Zezima

The Stamford Advocate

Unlike a lot of seals, who have managed to gain steady employment in circuses and aquariums, I have never tried to balance a beach ball on my nose. Considering the prominence of my proboscis, nobody could tell the difference.

But I once was a seal trainer for a day at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead, N.Y. I even have a framed certificate and a photo of me being kissed by a 465-pound sea lion named Herbie.

I figured this valuable experience would come in handy when my wife, Sue, and I went on a seal walk recently with our favorite naturalist, Dr. Artie Kopelman.

A couple of years ago, Kopelman led me, Sue and about 80 other people on a whale watch off Montauk, N.Y. Everyone but Kopelman, the captain and yours truly got violently ill. Sue was green for three days. Even the whales must have been sick because none showed up.

There was little chance of a repeat on the seal walk because we would be on terra firma, not the open ocean. (The ocean, by the way, is open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays.)

Lacking seal blubber, which made me want to blubber when I realized how cold it was, I was bundled in four layers of clothing to ward off the 30-degree temperature, 20-mph wind gusts and 20-degree windchill, conditions that are positively balmy for seals. Then again, I’m positively balmy myself, so I was prepared to perambulate with a pack of pinniped pals.

So were 40 or so fellow seal walkers who huddled in Cupsogue Beach County Park in Westhampton, N.Y., and were warmly welcomed, figuratively speaking, by Kopelman, a college professor and president of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (

Before we set out on our walk, Kopelman warned, “Never get in the water with a seal.”

That’s because -- if you don’t freeze to death first -- seals will eat you. Or try to balance you on their noses.

Peg Hart is living (fortunately) proof. “I was bitten by an elephant seal,” said Hart, a naturalist who specializes in birds (she was, after all, talking to a birdbrain) but also works with marine mammals.

“It happened in San Francisco,” Hart recalled. “The seal had to be restrained so its blood could be drawn.”

Instead, the seal drew Hart’s blood. “It was a fluke,” she said, rolling up her sleeve to reveal a long scar.

“Looks more like it was a tooth,” I said.

Hart left her seal in San Francisco. Now she’s back East and going on seal walks with Kopelman.

Curiously, seals don’t like to walk, preferring to take mass transit by swimming together, which made the seal walk a misnomer.

The two dozen harbor seals we saw were about 150 yards away, lounging on the beach but not, as far as I could see, reading romance novels.

I did get a better view of them when I looked through Kopelman’s telescope. One of the bigger ones turned on its side and waved a flipper at me. I waved back.

“I can see some of my regulars,” said Kopelman, noting that a few of the seals return to the beach every year from Canada, where they have summer homes. On the water, of course.

Despite the difficult conditions, it was a fascinating experience. Kopelman, who has been leading such groups for more than 20 years, had great insight not only about marine mammals but terrestrial ones, too.

“A couple of weeks ago, this kid showed up in shorts, with no gloves and no hat,” Kopelman said. “He must have eaten dumb flakes for breakfast. Then there was the woman who asked, ‘Do seals have bones?’ And some people want to know where the bathroom is. I always say, ‘It’s at home.’ Thanks to humans, these seal walks can be a real adventure.”

Copyright 2011 by Jerry Zezima

Friday, March 4, 2011

"The Stripper"

By Jerry Zezima

The Stamford Advocate

Don’t tell my wife, but lately I’ve been frequenting a strip joint. It’ll sound even kinkier when she finds out that the joint is a dental center, the stripper is an orthodontist named Michael and his best customer is a patient who happens to be me.

To avoid further confusion, as well as a raid by the police, I should mention that the young man in question, Dr. Michael Sheinis, always wears his white lab coat when I visit him in the Dental Care Center at Stony Brook University on Long Island, N.Y. But he does strip my teeth, which I guess makes me the strippee.

It also makes my pearly whites easier to move into the desired position now that I am wearing invisible braces. I need them because two of my teeth, one on the top and the other on the bottom, have shifted. Since I can’t shift for myself, I have been going to Stony Brook to get things straightened out.

For a year and a half, I had a short strip (there’s that word again!) of metal braces in the upper right part of my mouth. The braces moved back the teeth in the buccal segment so the lateral incisor could be rotated to its original position.

After the construction project was dismantled by Sheinis, a nice and talented resident at Stony Brook, I was ready for my invisible braces, known by the brand name Invisalign.

But first, the good doctor had to put cement in my mouth. Not blocks, which would have been appropriate because I’m a blockhead, but small attachments on a few of my teeth so the clear plastic braces can be snapped into place. At mealtime, I can pop out the upper and lower trays, stuff my face, brush my teeth and put the braces back in. No one can see them. Only my orthodontist knows for sure.

“I won’t tell anyone,” promised Sheinis, who used a composite gun to apply the attachments. It looks like a cross between a caulker (“No, I didn’t get it at Home Depot,” Sheinis said) and the phaser Capt. Kirk used on “Star Trek” (“Going where lots of other orthodontists have gone before,” the doctor added).

On a recent visit, Sheinis announced, “I have to do a little stripping.”

“Keep your shirt on, doc,” I urged.

“Not me,” he replied reassuringly. “Your teeth. I have to strip some of the bottom ones so the invisible braces can move them more easily.”

To do so, Sheinis used interproximal strips, which are essentially pieces of sandpaper floss. The idea was to slenderize the aforementioned teeth so the crooked one on the bottom could be pushed back into line with the others.

The stripping was done over three visits. “It keeps the shape of your teeth, but it narrows them a bit,” explained Sheinis, 27, who had braces -- metal, not invisible -- when he was 10.

“My dad’s an orthodontist,” he said. “He put every appliance in my mouth. I even had the headgear with the strap that comes out of your face. I had the lip bumper, too.”

The only good part, Sheinis said, was that he got to pick which color elastic bands were used on his braces. “I always chose colors to match my favorite sports teams,” the native Floridian said, referring to the Miami Dolphins (aqua and orange) and the Miami Heat (red and black).

Today, his teeth are perfectly straight, which will make him look good in his wedding pictures (he’s engaged to be married later this year). “The braces worked,” he said, noting that mine will, too.

“By the end of the year, you’ll have a dazzling smile,” Sheinis said. “And no more stripping. I’m sure your wife will be happy to hear that.”

Copyright 2011 by Jerry Zezima