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The Royal Tooth Doctor

Teeth are necessary. Chewing and smiling, best when not done simultaneously, are very important to us. This is why many years ago – but in the scope of things, not really that long ago – teeth got their own doctor. The doctors that came to be the teeth doctors are now referred to as dentists. The word dentist came from the Latin word “dental”, which means “to dent” or “knock out” – referring to the early removal of teeth.

I hate to begin a paragraph with a lie. But I’m ok ending a paragraph with a lie, like I did in that last paragraph. I could continue by telling you that periodontal comes from the Latin phrase “a pair (or two) people looking at gums” but you deserve better than that. So, let me tell you what I really know. I know I should have become a dentist. I think I would have been good at all aspects of the job, except putting my hands in other people’s mouths and golfing.

Somewhere along the way the mouth doctor became very empowered. For someone who works on such a specific area, the dentist wields an inordinate amount of power. A medical doctor covers the entire body, containing a little thing I like to call “the heart”, as well as all of our other vital organs. Teeth, though very necessary never quite made the “vital” list. Nonetheless, teeth require the mostly undivided attention (divided a little with the hygienist) of the dentist.

When you visit the doctor, usually spurred on by pain, you are given a check-up and may be prescribed some medication. If you are overweight, the doctor may inform you that it would be in your best interest to lose a few pounds. You thank the doctor for his or her time, get your prescription filled and maybe get some ice cream because you deserve a little treat for all that you’re going through. And the diet starts immediately after that last ice cream.

I think my point is that there is a big difference between the doctor, who is trying to keep you alive and the dentist, who is trying to prevent your teeth from getting icky. That difference is guilt. The doctor doesn’t tell you to come back every six months to check on your weight and doesn’t have posters of clogged arteries on the wall. The dentist requires that you come in every six months and has posters of rotten teeth on the wall.

Us humans are social creatures and if we tell each other things over and over those things become the way they are and are expected to be. Case in point. In 2014 a cup of coffee can cost $5.00. This is hot water and bean juice, people. Many years ago a savvy dentist saw his friends’ bean juice stained teeth and thought to himself, “what if I clean their teeth once a year – wait, if I make it twice a year I can take every Monday off.”

Kind brushed reader, I’m not suggesting that preventative practices pertaining to the mouth should not happen. I’m merely reporting on the differences between the practices that keep your entire system working and those with the sole purpose of finding holes in the chewing bones of one’s mouth.

The idea was hatched by the dentists that everyone should be checked more than once a year. Next there needed to be a way to convince the good people to come in as scheduled. One free Monday a dentist had an idea and he shared it with his fellow dentists at the golf clubhouse.

“I’ve got it. People now know to brush their teeth. By caring for their teeth, they get fewer holes in their teeth and less reason to visit us. What if we tell them to do something that is nearly impossible. Then we make them believe if this nearly impossible task is not completed daily, they’ll be putting themselves and their teeth in harms way. Then they visit us as we suggest.”

“What will that impossible task be?” said another dentist in the room.

“We’ll tell them to run a string back and forth between their teeth every day.” There was a silence in the room.

“You mean, you would have them run string between all of their teeth each and every day? Top and bottom?”

“Yes.”

“It would have to be a tiny string.”

Another dentist stood up. “If they brush their teeth and clean between with this tiny string they may reduce the tooth holes and we may become obsolete.”

“Ahhh,” said the first dentist. “But who would have time to thread a tiny string through all their teeth every day? The answer is only very few obsessive compulsive do-gooder rule followers. The rest will have the tiny string, but only use it on occasion – maybe after corn on the cob. All these people will feel guilty about not using the tiny string and will visit us as we prescribe.”

“I like it,” stated the second dentist and there was much nodding in general agreement amongst the room of dentists. As the nodding was winding down, a man stood up in the back of the room.

“What if we all hang pictures of rotten teeth and bleeding gums in our office?” There was immediate jubilation from this idea and the entire room of dentists began chanting, “Hip, Hip, Hooray!” And all the dentists jumped up and down with uncontrollable glee.

I did not make that up. That was taken directly from the minutes of the meeting and can be found in the archives of the American Dental Association. I had to look hard to find it. They are not exactly proud of the “hip, hip, hooraying” and may even deny its existence, if asked.

I’m not here to demonize the good dentists. I just think there should be a better way than the old fashioned guilt tripping to get us in the door. I have never been scolded by a doctor for not visiting for 2-3 years. I can’t say the same for a particular dentist, who shall remain nameless because I can’t remember his name. I think it’s important for kids to learn how to brush and occasionally use the tiny string. Sometimes it’s just hard to get fully behind all the care that can go into a four year old’s tooth. It all seems for not when in a year or two, no matter how much you take care of that tooth it’s just going to fall out. It will just give up and get pushed out of the mouth by the rightful aires to the gum thrown – the adult teeth.

Teeth have been on the mind lately because our daughter Lila is just starting with the process of braces – an even more specialized niche where some dentists don’t even venture. In fact, the orthodontist may only work on straightening teeth, not partaking of common dentistry. They are the royal tooth doctors.

Making people have a straight smile is a lucrative business. This business was still emerging when I got braces almost 40 years prior, with tools and methods in the early stages of development. Once my braces were off, my teeth slowly shifted over the years, even with all the hard work my orthodontist went through.

My orthodontist was an avid goose hunter and asked me if my dad would let him hunt on our farm land, in trade for a reduction on the cost of my braces. Because we already had others hunting on the land, my dad had to decline, based on the concept that more guns would be worse. He told me there were too many goose hunters on the land already. My orthodontist really didn’t want to hear that when he asked me my dad’s decision – while wires were sticking out of my mouth. My answer was supposed to be, “He said no.” But it came out, “Ha shay naaa.”

“No?” He asked.

“Ya, naaa,” I slurred. I tried to explain, ” Ha shay ooo mahhy oose unders on ah and ahheady.”

He glared at me, “No?”

“Ya, naaa,” I repeated, with the feeling of drool sliding down the side of my face.

He finished twisting some wires with intense quiet and quickly got up and patted me on the shoulder and said, “Ok, you’re good. Jeanne, can you finish this up?”

The thing was, I wasn’t going to stay good. Jeanne always made blood come out of my face – mostly my gums. She would say something like, “Oh, did that hurt?” And the next second blood might spurt up out of my mouth and hit her in her clear protective eye wear, skillfully skirting past her grimacing mouth. I always thought maybe the orthodontist would have completed the work himself on that particular day, had he received an affirmative on the goose hunting barter plan.

Even though I am fully aware of how the dentists operate, I have three kids who I don’t want to prematurely lose their teeth, so I have to fall in lock step and tell them what needs to be told so they take care of their teeth. I try to show them that I’m using the tiny string and get them in the habit of brushing regularly. When they are the appropriate age I will let them know that they should not be intimidated by the guilt.

On our first visit to the orthodontist with Lila, we had a meeting with the lead assistant. She went over everything including the costs. I thought this would be a good time to tell my little story about my orthodontist and then ask to trade services for land access. I thought it would be funny to ask the assistant if either of the orthodontist partners would like to hunt on some land that we have in Wisconsin. Cynthia smiled awkwardly as the joke was going nowhere and wished I had just not asked it. I could tell quickly that these city orthodontists assumed bartering was the process of trading a credit card number for a chicken pot pie. She told me in a very serious tone that the orthodontists don’t hunt.

Lila watched this transpire and patiently waited for it to be over, not knowing that in an alternate universe there is a similar scenario playing out where the dad doesn’t try to make a stupid joke. In that same alternate universe the dad does not cast suspicions on the dental profession.

After some mouth spacer time the orthodontist required Lila to have a total of five teeth pulled from her standing room only head. Four adult teeth were pulled and one baby tooth was captured. This was a total of five by most accounts. Lila decided that those rooted teeth should be worth two dollars each from the tooth fairy that she doesn’t believe in. The baby tooth only would bring one dollar on the fairy open market. She also negotiated that the tooth fairy should only look at the teeth and then leave the money and the teeth behind.

The following morning Lila awoke to nine dollars under her pillow, along with her beloved teeth. As I watched her jumping up and down “hip, hip, hooraying,” I could only think that somehow I had set the stage for her to grow up to be a dentist. I went to the bathroom and hid the tiny string.

Sadly yours,

Jason Spafford

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