Tooth Less

The words “difficult extraction” are not what you want to hear, seated in a dentist chair.  Fortunately mine was not difficult.  I’m squeamish about most things, and like many kids raised in humble circumstances, experienced dental care at the largess of various government programs.  I remember going home nearly every time in a state of shock regarding how much it hurt and what he had done to us.  It has taken a lifetime to get over the fear of the dentist.  Now I patronize a local female dentist who is gentle and caring—something that didn’t exist, and we couldn’t have afforded anyway, when I was a child.  Even so, she’s telling me a tooth has to come out.  I’m being stoic and starting my meditation mantra.

Health care in the United States, as Trump’s recent treatment for a virus to which he carelessly exposed himself shows, is horribly uneven.  Those who are systemically kept poor—especially those who are “of color”—often have few choices and die younger.  Yet supporters of 45 see no problem with this.  Now, I wish I weren’t in this dentist chair right now.  I’m not looking forward to the novocaine shots or the tugging on my jaw.  Or the hours of gauze in my mouth afterward.  But at least I can afford this.  It pains me even more that there are others who can’t.  And that those who claim to follow a man who healed for free are voting for a man who has pledged to keep inequality as “the American way.”

I grew up taking care of my teeth the way the poor often do—that is to say, not enough.  The solutions involve education and empathy, both of which our government has chosen to eject for jingoism and bravado.  I’m not so much worried about having one tooth less.  I am worried about a government that feels it has the right to oppress the poor so that the wealthy can continue to gain more money that can, in turn, be used to control the government.  This is wrong.  There’s no way that it can be made to be “Christian,” no matter what evangelicals may say.  I’m sitting here in the dentist chair and the needle’s getting closer.  I’ll have a mouth full of gauze for the next few hours and I’ll be on a soft food diet for a while.  I may be in some pain.  But still I know I’m one of the lucky ones.

Grin and Bear It

The dentist’s chair is about the last place I’d like to spend my Saturdays, but given my work schedule there are few alternatives. So there I was yesterday, yellow light glaring in my eyes, drill whirring ebulliently away, and finally gagging embarrassingly into the tiny sink at my right. Those back teeth come in handy for grinding, but they are poorly designed for brushing. I find the dentist’s office a good place for philosophical thought. In that chair where I’d rather not be, feeling sensations I’d rather not feel, I wonder in what sense my body is my own. Lately I’ve been contemplating this quite a bit. Consciousness seems attracted to a single body at a time, but the biological organism I call me doesn’t always have a say in where it is slated to go, or what it is free to do. Each job I have taken has come as an “only offer”—I’m not one of those over whom bidding wars are likely to erupt. That crown that popped off my tooth wasn’t really my doing, nor was the memorable root canal that led to it being there in the first place. Still, here I am.

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Religions regularly teach that overcoming physical limitations is one of the perks of paying attention to your soul. I suspect parsing soul, consciousness, mind, and psyche is to slice this entity I call “me” a bit too thin. Whatever all or any of this is, having x-rays shot through it while the assistant hides behind the wall, it is hopefully made of sterner stuff than the teeth nature has given it. One hopes that this can’t be all to expect out of our existence. Life, if only our physical years, is too short to spend much of it in the dentist’s chair.

I’m not sure I like dentists knowing more about this body than me. Is it mine at all? I recall the exasperated call for a tongue blocker in a Wisconsin dentist office and the tooth-meister proclaimed, as if I weren’t in the room, “he has a curious tongue.” I don’t intend for my tongue to be curious, but it always seems to wonder about what finds its way into my mouth. Is it me? Is it mine? The consciousness always seems to come back to this body that does things I can’t control. These thoughts come on a sleepy Saturday morning when I should, by all rights, still be in bed. That is, if I’m indeed the one who wakes up in this body yet again today. And whichever body it may be, if it is mine, I know I brushed its teeth before going to sleep, as I have for as long as I can remember. And yet the drill whirs on.

The Politics of Dentistry

A story from the Associated Press on NPR this week announced the discovery of some teeth. No ordinary teeth, these perhaps belonged to Homo sapiens at 400,000 BP (“Before Present,” no apologies to gas-guzzlers). And they were found in Israel. Archaeologists from Tel Aviv University are quoted as stating this could rewrite the story of human evolution, suggesting that modern humans emerged some 200,000 years earlier than thought, and in Israel instead of in Africa. Now those are some ambitious choppers! Coincidentally, the discovery was announced the day I was discussing the earliest human occupation of the Levant in my Winter Term class. Of course. One of my students pointed the article out to me.

One of the endlessly fascinating aspects of archaeology and paleontology is the constant surprise of discovery. Often I have to remind myself that the past only exists in reconstruction. Once the moment is over it is lost forever, only to be rebuilt by specialists in documents and artifacts. Reconstruction, however, often comes with a political price tag. Anyone who follows the claims based on archaeological finds knows the folly of discovery. In disputed territories the work of archaeologists is used to stake claims to modern land ownership. Who in the world would not want to own the first location where modern humans emerged on the planet? What staggering claims could be made!

I have always sensed a comfort when thinking of human origins in Africa. Far from the (modern) industrialized mayhem of “civilization,” early hominids took their first tentative steps in Africa. Cut off from the rest of the post-Pangean continents except via the narrow passage of the Sinai, Africa harbored our pre-sapiens ancestors. Once they reached Asia and Europe, they interacted with Neanderthals, as genetics now demonstrate. Interaction led inevitably to extinction, so politics had to have been involved. To find the pre-political Garden of Eden, we need to cast our eyes on Africa. Anthropologists are even now disputing whether the teeth are of Homo sapiens or not. I find, when I’m in the dentist’s chair, it is best to leave politics out of the discussion.

From the Associated Press