FOR A TIME, I thought I had failed my father. I thought I had not lived up to his expectation of me. Later, I thought I had failed my mother and then, still later, I thought maybe I had failed my sister. Now I know who I have failed.I have failed my dentist.

There is no way I can satisy the man. There is no way I can do the things he wants me to do and still have time to make a living. Every time I go to see him, he accuses me of neglecting something. He is always right. There is so much to do. Once a month, I fail him.

I fail to brush my teeth after every mean. I fail to brush my teeth before every meal. I fail to brush in the morning and in the afternoon and at night. I fail to get up at night to brush and I fail to floss and then pick and then gargle. I fail to carry those flat toothpicks and I eat the wrong foods. I eat sweets or I chew gum and then, after eating or chewing, I fail to brush and floss and massage and pick and gargle.

I cannot do all these things and be a father, I can not do all these things and find time to take out the garbage. I cannot do all these things and work and shampoo my hair three times a day to satisfy the dermatologist and jog for my heart and read for my mind. I think I will have to hire someone to do it all.

Dentists are terrific at making you feel guilty. There is no such thing in their book as a "natural cavity." All cavities are caused by moral and ethical lapses of their patients. They talk about cavities as if they were a social disease -- like there was no possible way in all the world you could have gotten a cavity if you had brushed incessantly, flossed, massaged, picked and gargled. They are, of course right. You would not have had time to eat.

Dentists probably learned this routine from dermatologists. When I was a kid, the dermatologist blamed the acne patient for having acne. You had it because you were eating the wrong foods and not spending all your spare time washing your face. Ulcer doctors did the same thing. They prescribed a diet consisting of wallpaper paste and white rice and then blamed the ulcer victim for his own ulcer by suggesting he had gone off the diet. Everyone, of course, did. In fact, it was this guilt that caused the ulcer attack.

Here we are talking of the New American Clergy. These people -- dentists, doctors, principals -- are the last to deal in guilt. They are among the only ones left to hold people strictly accountable for what they do, the last bastion of the concept of free will. The real clergy gave up on free will a long time ago. It was killing church attendance.

Dentists are the best at assessing blame and inducing guilt. A physician would never think of blaming a patient for having the flu. A dentist won't hestitate. Dentists blame you not only for cavities. Mine holds me accountable for the fact that I grind my teeth in my sleep. I have thought of telling him I will cut out sleeping, but I am afraid that if I joke, he will send in the lady in white. She teaches grown people how to brush their teeth.

Twice now, under two different dentists, the lady has come to see me. She always carries a hand-held mirror and a mock-up of teeth and roots and nerves, placing them all down with the air of a second-grade teacher about to teach a really slow child. She then asks you to hold the mirror. This must be called something like "involving the patient" but it doesn't work with me. As guilty as I feel, I will not do it.

Soon I will go the oral surgeon. I have to go because my dentist wants the surgeon to look at my gums. I was there once before. The surgeon came and peered into my mouth, reciting things in a strange language that some women wrote down in a steno pad. He said nothing about fault or blame or brushing or flossing or anything like that. All he said is that I had to come back. I did not, and the reason was that he didn't make me feel guilty.

I mean, if he doesn't care about me, I'll go somewhere else.