Transforming Teeth

At the beginning of December, one of my father’s molars fell apart. First a tiny bit of filling broke off, then another, then three more pieces. Through some cosmic coincidence, I had been dreaming about losing my teeth right around the same time. I thought my dream was sympathetic magic, but it turned out to be prophetic instead: one week later, while biting into an apple, I felt the same sickening crack, like biting down on bubble wrap. Suddenly my apple had the texture of sand, and my tongue found a new depression for me to get depressed about.

As Titus Andromedon sagaciously sings during a fever-induced toothpaste jingle audition on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Your teeth are bones that live outside.” Unlike Kimmy Schmidt, they are not unbreakable; in fact, mine have been breaking by degrees for as long as I can remember having them. I am currently watching X lose his baby teeth, and acquire his adult teeth, and I feel only pity for his enthusiasm about the process. Sure, they’re fun now, I think, but those tiny enamelled daggers just can’t wait to stab you in the back.

My dental dirge is long and costly. First there were fillings – I don’t recall how many and at what ages, but X has had four in his baby teeth so far, so if he inherited his mouth from me and my Dad, I’d guess about the same. Certainly, by adolescence I was accustomed to having my mouth invaded by the latex-gloved hands of relative strangers. Not only were cavities routinely on the menu, but my bite required orthodontic consultation, which led to braces, which led to a perfect smile composed of traumatized, sensitive teeth. Then rinse and repeat, back to fillings, eventually graduating to crowns.

Orthodontists are the worst. I don’t support psychological profiling of dentists as sadistic monsters (Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors notwithstanding), but based on my experiences with orthodontists, I’ll make an exception. It’s a profession that maximizes both pain and profit, holding up the twin threats of “jaw surgery” and “lifelong social pariah whose smile induces panic in small children and dogs” in order to extort more procedures and prosthetics from society’s most vulnerable demographics (ie. people with bad teeth). Any professional who ends a session by saying, “Come back in six weeks and we’ll tighten you up some more” needs to question their priorities. End of rant.

I’ve had some excellent dentists in my time. Strange as it sounds, one of the chief reasons I regretted leaving Edmonton in 2009 was my dentist at the time, Dr. Jang, whose soothing voice and firm hand made injections feel like hugs. Dr. Jang was sympathetic to my raw, abused teeth, and always informed me about the latest techniques for reducing sensitivity. Once this backfired horribly: we tried out a brand new machine which used lasers to melt microscopic bits of my enamel. The melty bits were supposed to slide down and cover exposed areas of the teeth before hardening again. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced outside of childbirth.

The laser assault left my entire mouth in agony for about a week. Then it settled back down to the normal level of sensitivity. But then Jang did something unheard of in her profession – she refunded me the $2,000 I’d paid her to torture me. Now you can see why I didn’t want to leave her. During my last session, she smuggled me two tubes of Duraflor, a desensitizing varnish intended for professional use only. I ration it out to myself, one Q-tip’s worth at a time. Like everything associated with dentistry, it smells and tastes like rancid formaldehyde, but without it, I’d probably never be able to eat popcorn or ice cream, or inhale sharply on a cold day.

In Cape Breton, I shopped around a bit before settling on a family practice in Glace Bay with a weird vibe. The wife was the dentist; her husband was sort of like her manager, I guess, booking her into exotic conferences in Nevada or Florida, and for the local customers, preparing PowerPoint presentations on the best long-term regimens of treatment. For local customers, this would probably have been their first encounter with concepts like “reparative treatment” or “temporomandibular joint dysfunction,” but I knew all the tricks. I let them upsell me on a prosthetic night guard and a couple of crowns, but I wasn’t going the full PowerPoint package.

Because if Dr. Jang couldn’t work a miracle, then nobody can. Underneath their molded smiles, dentists are just like any other medical professionals: all but helpless in the daunting shadow of mortality. Most of them want to help, and many of them want to get rich; but none of them can change the fact that teeth are born to die. No amount of brushing and flossing can keep bacteria from getting into our biggest, busiest orifice. And once a tooth has started to die, metal and porcelain and plastic can slow the decay, but never stop or reverse it.

My own collapsed filling necessitated visiting a French dentist, but it was business as usual. He complimented my former dentists on their plombages, some of which are nearly 20 years old now. As he blasted my mouth with sandpapery polish, he complained pleasantly about how overworked dentists are in France – and, indeed, he did all the cleaning and x-rays himself, whereas in Canada he’d have a fleet of technicians and assistants. He declined to crown my dented dentin and suggested I wait till I was back in Canada – or until it started to hurt, whichever came first. In other words, he didn’t seek to gouge me.

I left the office still worrying my corroded molar with my tongue, but generally unworried about the state of humankind. Yes, we’re all in a perpetual state of decay, some of us moreso than others, but not everyone seeks to take advantage of it.

Except orthodontists. Those guys can all suck tinfoil.


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