Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Tooth


The numbing of the left side of my face and mouth is beginning to wear off now and is being replaced with a discovery of a quite sore tongue, whether it was bitten or got in the way of my dentist’s drill, I am not sure. I have just had a temporary crown put on a back tooth that was filled by my childhood dentist some many decades ago, and was now a wreck of cracked mercury filled metal that was going to get worse before getting any better. It was a must do, and so I sat today with my mouth open for two hours, listening to the drills and suction things, tasting a clove flavored substance, and trying to keep my tongue from reflexively getting in the way. Apparently, I was unsuccessful on that front.

It set me remembering previous appointments with dentists in my oral history. My earliest was a Dr. Stewart, who happened to live next door to us, and not so secretly, must have wanted to be a standup comic. Upon, what seemed to be my monthly visits to his office, I would see the puke green front door and the wavy glass block windows of the building and feel the doom of what lay before me long before I entered. From his waiting room of the dreaded horror, I was told to walk a colored line on the floor to the room where the chair and the bright lights awaited their next victim. The little table next to the chair was always neatly covered with sharp pointy tools that were unbearable to look at, and the continual sound of the water that flushed the sink that one was supposed to spit in was not a soothing feature. The walls were filled with wooden cutouts of various childhood fairy tale characters whose images now, for unknown reasons remain as just ghosts hidden behind my mental blockage, lurking but not revealing.

Dr. Stewart would appear after I had been forced into the restricting arms of the chair, holding a mask to put over my face, for me to breathe deeply into, to inhale the perfume of the nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas”. I always tried to hold my breath but was never successful and quickly was turned into a loopy and helpless patient. Not only that, I soon found that I was also an unwilling audience to the doctor’s hidden desire to make folks laugh. It did not work despite his best efforts, nor did the nauseating effect of the “laughing gas” help his cause. Here I was, as I recall sitting there, a little kid with a grown man’s hand in my mouth with tools of serious potential damage, seeing fuzzy images of really creepy fairy tale characters moving around on the wall in front of me, and he starts telling me jokes, and then asks questions too. I mean, what was he thinking? Was he expecting a good belly laugh and a compliment on his drilling technique at the same time? Not.

At some point I outgrew both him and the regularity of my getting cavities, and moved onto other dentists. There was one that decided I needed some shot in my mouth to do something, and he stuck a needle in, not just close to, but right on the nerve. Flames shot up the side of my face and reflexively my fist came up immediately to his face. I did not connect with his surprised mug but it was close, and he was definitely fired as my dentist after that visit. Getting a dentist that does a good job and who doesn’t manage to inflict great pain, and who doesn’t tell jokes on the job, is a difficult part of keeping the whole mouth in reasonable working order. Teeth are an important part of eating and I do like to that a lot, so, maintenance is a required and necessary evil.

It is an interesting thing to reflect on, that this dentistry thing and its practitioners, which brings bad memories and nightmares of the horror to us all, then leads us directly to its application in humor, and I am not referring to my former would be comic, Dr Stewart. In a twisted way, that which scares us, can be made fun of and is a universal release of the tension associated with it.

In the comedy musical, play/movie “Little Shop of Horrors” Steve Martin so brilliantly plays the sadistic villain, and is of course, a dentist. His techniques and the tools used in the movie where the way we really regard them, caricatures of the real thing, huge exaggerated instruments of terror, and we all laughed at seeing them, and cringed. 

The infamous Peter Sellers gave one of my favorite performances of all time, also as dentist. It was in a scene in one of the “Pink Panther” movies where he is in one of his best incognito costumes, this time he is pretending to be a Tyrolean dentist. His job in the scene was to pull a tooth from his insane and unsuspecting former boss, Chief Inspecteur Drefuss, and since he, Peter Sellers’ character Clouseau, had no idea how to really do it, he begins to administer the laughing gas to himself to no good end.

It’s one of the funniest scenes I have ever laughed through, falling down funny, as his plastic nose melts off his face, him cracking various teeth from his patient with a set of pliers, and it is absolutely hilarious in a painful way. It is also, though, that kind of laughing that comes with a deep sympathy for the patient, a gut cringing, guilty to laugh but can’t help it, nervous, don’t let it happen to me feeling. It is a dark and twisted form of humor.


I began to write this the other day, post dentist visit, still feeling the after effects of local anesthesia which somehow got more general, and did a reasonable job of fogging my brain well enough to hide the fact that the next day my tongue really felt like I had licked a chain saw. This recent dental event, though, has gotten me pondering the cultural fascination with teeth, and not just from the humorous side.

From early childhood we are rewarded at the shedding of our baby teeth by a visit from the tooth fairy, (or tooth hornet depending on who is propagating the myth), who kindly takes the tooth and leaves a coin in its place. We smile to show our teeth in a happy greeting. Dogs, and many other animals, show theirs to warn, bite, maim, rip flesh off a carcass, and some of them smile as well when wagging a tail. Peoples have long been knocking out bear teeth and stringing them on necklaces to wear to show stature.

Teeth are a symbol for power, strength, good health, and prowess. A good set can tell much about your lifestyle, age, and self regard, and a bad one tells a lot as well. To this end we will clean them, straighten them, polish and whiten them, floss, gargle, and take bi yearly visits to a person who for strange reasons unknown, has made a career of taking care of your teeth, and, be darned grateful that they did. So we can keep on smiling through the pain.

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