Mostly, I take good care of myself. I meditate almost every day, exercise several times a week, eat a diet heavy on greens, beans, and grains. I don’t smoke or drink (coffee or alcohol). Yet, when it comes to my teeth, I can be a bit of a slacker. Perhaps this is because, despite a longstanding sweet tooth, I didn’t develop my first — and so far only — cavity-like problem until I was in my 30s, and it was so tiny that I didn’t even notice. Only my dentist at the time, poking at my teeth with a metal pick, discovered a soft spot which he decided was a cavity. I prefer to call it a cavity-in-training, or a pre-cavity, so as to not offend my otherwise hardworking enamel.
That dentist, whose office was in a grey historic clapboard house just blocks from Harvard University, had a British receptionist. Her accent and crisp manner made scheduling a cleaning seem akin to arranging a meeting with Scotland Yard. One hygienist from Eastern Europe barely cracked a smile and lectured me through pursed lips about the need to floss. When she had completed the cleaning, the dentist came in to inspect her work. I lay back, mouth gaping, as they discussed potentially problem teeth, each of which was assigned a letter and a number. I tried not to drool or gag as they spoke in code and made notes in my file, seemingly oblivious that a human being was attached to the molars, canines, bicuspids and incisors. The final indignity was a nausea-inducing fluoride rinse that I swirled in my mouth for 60 excruciating seconds. While I dreaded being there, I knew they were rigorous, if not anal, so I grimaced and bore it.
In Denver, my dentist’s office is on the garden level of a brick medical building. The consultation rooms have a window at the top, and people entering can peer down at the examinees, reclining with mouths agape. The hygienist wears colorful scrubs and sparkling jewelry. The dentist has a wrinkly hide, as if he’s spent more hours in the sun than the office. Sometimes he even grabs a snack between patients. During my first visit I mistook the informality for ineptitude, the joviality as a kind of joke, even though the practice came recommended. Soon after, I became acquainted with a former dentist who told me that unless you have problem teeth or gums, an annual cleaning would suffice. So, I delayed my next visit until my teeth started to feel, shall we say, a bit scuzzy. When I returned, they smiled, told me I had great teeth and reminded me to floss daily. I was diligent for a time…and then slacked off.
Months later, I received a postcard to schedule my next appointment. I used it as a bookmark and forgot about it. When my toothbrush needed to be replaced, I bought a battery operated disposable with vibrating bristles. Immediately, I noticed an improvement and thought I could postpone a cleaning for a few months. Eventually, however, it was time to go back. It had been long enough that, while I remembered the general location of the office, I had forgotten the dentist’s name and the exact address. Luckily, I found the book in which I had stashed the postcard.
Despite my lengthy absence, the hygienist was cheerful rather than chastising. Relieved, I complimented her on her magenta scrubs. Soon, she donned magnifying goggles and got to work, her tools scraping loudly against my teeth. I tried not to cringe.
“How are you doing?” she paused to ask.
I remembered The Art of Possibility and chortled, “Woo Hoo! I’m having a great time.”
“That’s what others say during their welcome back cleaning.”
I couldn’t imagine my Cambridge dentist using such a phrase, let alone allowing a client to return if they didn’t appear like clockwork every six months. Or maybe his Stasi-like assistants forced dental delinquents into straitjackets and administered a flossing so deep the poor souls would never forget.
When she was done, she gently reminded me to floss, and suggested an electric toothbrush. The dentist came in to take a look and asked me how my teeth were.
“They seem to have survived my recent neglect,” I said.
He chuckled as he poked around, then pronounced my pearly whites to be excellent. I expect that my next visit, after using my high-tech toothbrush, should be even more of a delight.