Sunday, September 09, 2007


An Advanced Stage to Avoid

Every now and then I stop to reflect on the fact that I 'm getting older. This should not surprise me, nor should it surprise anyone else who is aware that "getting older" is in fact the natural state of all living, cell-dividing organisms. Of course I know this is the case, but I don't really "know" it except in certain instances where it is profoundly, and sometimes painfully, illustrated for me.

One good example occurs during the eating of Snickers bars. When I was younger, my general philosophy toward the eating of Snickers bars was, "This is a cost-effective way to temporarily assuage my hunger, better allowing me to focus on the task at hand. " In recent times, my outlook has evolved partially, yet crucially: "This is a cost-effective way to temporarily assuage my hunger, better all-OWWWW!..."

Did you notice the change? It deviates from the original manifesto during the precise moment I bite with the upper front molar on the right side of my mouth. This is one of the teeth in the oral canal I call my own which currently marked with a tiny black spot that acts as a kind of horizontally-suspended anti-chocolate landmine. This is a recent development, and big surprise: who could have predicated that I, after more than two decades of Snickers-bar consumption, would have painful spots on my teeth now, of all times?

Revelations such as these prompt me to do other things that remind me of my advancing age, such as visit the dentist's office. When I was young, the dentist's office was a fun place, because I got to read Sports Illustrated in the waiting room, older women would compliment me on how I doing such an able job at getting bigger, and when I left I was given a new toothbrush that I could begin ignoring immediately.

As I grew older, I realized that dental employees did not, in fact, clean my teeth for free while living off a diet of water and tooth paste. All of those years, some other person had actually been paying them, or at least paying an insurance office that, in turn paid the dental clinic. At some point, I haven't calculated when, I became the person who had to do that.

Also, the reading of Sports Illustrated became less enjoyable as those inside the magazine started accruing more tattoos, paternity suits and zeroes on their contracts. I had also stopped growing in any measurable way that chipper older women appreciated, and I came to realize that the purpose of a toothbrush is not to ignore it, but apparently to ward off the Advanced Stages of Periodontitis.

I think this is a poster found inside most dental clinics all over America, showing the gradual erosion of the teeth until the Fourth Stage, at which point they resemble piano keys that have been run through a wine press. The dental hygienists say they 're ready to see you, but they 're really just ready to make you wait for them while you study the minute details of this poster.

When they finally do arrive, you're ready to do anything they tell you to avoid the advanced stages, except of course give up Snickers bars (trust me when I say this is not a physical possibility).

Since moving to Korea, I have begun using a dental clinic in Seoul near my workplace. I have not seen the Advanced Stages of Periodontitis poster there, but there is another that displays screws being put into people's teeth and then inserted into the gums. I can 't understand the Korean words on the poster yet, but I have plenty of time to speculate about its meaning while I sit waiting for appointments.

Maybe it says that this is a new anesthetized surgical treatment for people who’ve lost teeth, I wonder. Or maybe it says that they reserve the right to do this to me without anesthesia during appointments if I don't floss enough.

The latter wouldn't surprise me too much, because dental hygienists in any country are rarely satisfied with my efforts.

"You need to more cleaning*," the woman in the Seoul clinic says.

In order to correct my dental deficiencies, they tilt my chair back, cover my face with a green cloth that only exposes the mouth, and they begin scraping away, followed by an actual flossing demonstration they hope I'll remember later. I rarely recall their example, because I 'm lost in other details such as: 1) keeping my mouth open as wide as possible, and 2) keeping my tongue lying flat on the bottom of the mouth, lest it get in the way of the hookish-scraping object being used.

Only during her momentary pauses do I realize that my hands are probably clenched on my stomach so tightly as to turn pinkish in color. That is, after all, a rather sharp object being used only millimeters away from soft, pink flesh.

"Is this painful?" she asks. I shake my head no. After all, she said "painful," not "terribly uncomfortable and unnerving."

"Okay, finished," she says. "Your teeth clean now, but you need to more effort flossing.”

I nod my head in agreement and slip away as soon as I can. I may be getting older, but I may have another 50 years of visits to the dental clinic ahead of me. I want to avoid giving them excuses to put the screws in for as long as possible.

*This a common way for Koreans to structure their sentences. The lady who cooks in our cafeteria says "You need to more fat" when she wants me to get seconds. Students who encourage their classmates to try harder say "You need to more fighting."

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