you’ll never brush your teeth lightly again

September 28th, 2009 | Other Projects

Photo on 2009-09-28 at 15.11 #3
I met June Thomas in 1987 or so. I knew her because she worked at the feminist monthly off our backs, which ran my cartoons. So when I went on tour with my first book, she offered to put me up in D.C. We were on our way to a reading together, and I was a little nervous. To lighten the mood, I said, “Do I have anything in my teeth?” and bared my fangs at her. She said rather curtly, “No. You have big, perfect American teeth.”

Now June works for Slate. And now I know why she was so touchy on the subject of teeth. This week Slate will be rolling out, one installment a day for the next week, her in-depth report, The American Way of Dentistry: A Look at the Coming Crisis. Here’s the very riveting first installment, The Story of my Teeth.

And here’s the Facebook fan page where you can share dental horrors of your own.

43 Responses to “you’ll never brush your teeth lightly again”

  1. June says:

    I still feel terrible for having snapped. (Alison really does have lovely teeth.)

  2. Kate L says:

    June (#1)

    Yes, what big teeth Alison has! And, wow, what a title for a journal!!! Also, don’t get me started on dentistry. I’ve spent a lifetime grinding my teeth in my sleep (out of subconscious angst, I guess), and now I’ve got the crowns to prove it! I suspect that, someday, medical science will be able to implant our own stem cells in the empty sockets of lost teeth, and regrow them. But I wonder if people will then forget to perform routine dental hygiene, if they know a replacement set might be available?

  3. Kate L says:

    …Uh, I meant that “Slate” was quite a title for a journal. Did you know that slate is a metamorphic rock? Yes, it is! But I should also say that “Off Our Backs” is quite a title, as well! It actually took me a moment to realize that “Off Our Backs” could have more than one meaning!!!

  4. Ian says:

    I’ve got a bug at the moment, and I just realised I’m a complete bitch when I’m ill. I got a shock when I saw the teeth and my first thought was “is that Mr. Ed or that little mouth thing on a stalk that comes out of those Alien creatures to horrify Sigourney Weaver?”

    I do apologise. You have lovely teeth AB. Who am I to criticise anyway? I’m British! ;)

  5. I always think it’s funny to see peoples’ teeth. It’s like looking right through to their skeleton.

  6. Ian says:

    How on earth have you kept your teeth so white? I’m so impressed! Seriously!

  7. indigirl says:

    I know exactly what you mean about the skeleton thing, AB. Sometimes I like to kiss my girlfriend’s* teeth. It’s so oddly intimate.

    *technically, my wife/spouse/domestic partner, but those words are so tedious…

  8. Ginjoint says:

    I’m due for a dental checkup/cleaning. Overdue, because I know I need a crown on one tooth. But here’s my confession: After brushing my teeth the other morning, I was giving them a quick examination in the mirror. I reminded myself to schedule an appointment with the dentist, or…*ahem*…I’d end up featured in The Big Book of British Smiles. That exact thought went through my mind, and then I read June’s account. Hey, I never claimed to be the world’s most sensitive person, O.K.? (FWIW, my family’s mostly of English descent. Pasty-faced, weak-toothed people REPRESENT! WHOO!)

    Re: looking through to skeletons – tomorrow I have a bone scan, CAT scan, and an MRI! In the past, I’ve gotten printouts of my bone scans to take home, which show the whole skeleton. They’re quite cool; I like to tuck them in the corner of the kitchen window so the light shines through. The MRI will be of my head/brain, and I definitely want to get some sort of printout of that – it’ll show the hamster in the wheel that’s forever squeaking up there.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. Teeth and class are absolutely linked in America. Ooh, damnit – I just noticed the time, and I have to go drink the first jug of chalky crap now for the CAT scan. UGH. My penance for being an American dental supremacist. Which sounds kind of kinky.

  9. Kate L says:

    Oh, Ginjoint… a friend has just had an MRI, and this week she will be getting a PET scan. I hope that you are not getting your medical scans for a similar reason as hers. :(

    Your family is mainly English? On my father’s side of the family, I like to say that at one time or other, the L___ family was asked to leave every decent country in Europe!

  10. Kate L says:

    NOW I know what Alison’s teeth close-up reminds me of… Stephen King’s Langoliers! I’ve never been to New England, but based on the work of Stephen King, I have to assume that it is the scariest place on Earh!

  11. hairball_of_hope says:

    @Kate L (#10)

    Nope, New England isn’t the scariest place on Earth. At this time of year (fall foliage season), it’s one of the most beautiful. Get yourself out of the Flint Hills and onto New England granite, dear. You’d enjoy it very much, either as a leaf peeper or as a rockhound.

    Last Monday, Garrison Keillor had a bit on Stephen King on The Writer’s Almanac, honoring King’s birthday:

    http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/09/21

    I particularly liked two things Keillor quoted from King:

    “Budget was not exactly the word for whatever it was we were on. It was more like a modified version of the Bataan Death March.”

    “His first novel was Carrie (1973), about a weird, miserable, high school girl with psychic powers. The hard cover didn’t sell very well, but when his agent called to say that the paperback rights had sold for $400,000, King couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘The only thing I could think to do was go out and buy my wife a hair dryer.’”

  12. hairball_of_hope says:

    @Ian (#6)

    Assuming Alison hasn’t had porcelain veneers or caps, those choppers are pretty much American standard for someone under age 50 with decent dental genetics.

    First, the US water supply in most of the country had fluoride added, starting in the 1950s and 1960s. This greatly reduced the incidence of dental caries (cavities to us non-dentists). If you look at the history of US public water fluoridation, it sounds a lot like today’s wacko arguments against health insurance. Oppponents claimed it was a Communist plot, etc.

    Second, after the antibiotic tetracycline was introduced in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many children were exposed to it either in utero or as young children. Tetracycline is absorbed by teeth and bones, and produces a characteristic mottling or staining that is permanent (it fluoresces). Baby boomers born before 1960 or so often have tetracycline staining of their teeth. After 1960, physicians became aware of the problem and avoided prescribing tetracycline-class antibiotics to pregnant women and young children, unless absolutely necessary. I don’t know Alison’s year of birth, but I believe it is in the 1960s, so she was likely spared tetracycline staining.

    Third, many school systems have a required set of forms for dental checkups which have to be completed each year, ensuring that children see a dentist annually.

    Fourth, from the earliest school days, children in most schools are taught elements of personal hygiene (or at least they were taught 45 or so years ago when I was in NYC public elementary school). This included a requirement to have Kleenex or handkerchief at all times, to have fingernails inspected, ears inspected, and instruction on handwashing, tooth brushing, covering one’s mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and not to share headgear.

    Lastly, dental hygiene products are huge business in the US. A typical drugstore dental care aisle has about 20 brands of toothpaste, 15 kinds of mouthwash, a dozen types of dental floss, tooth whiteners, fluoride treatments, and every implement imaginable to stimulate gums. And of course, all of these are advertised heavily, so even the most dentist-phobic person is likely to purchase some of this stuff and put it to use.

  13. Ian says:

    Ah, this would explain why there’s no revolution in America – you’re too busy being/getting clean! Who can feel revolutionary in the shower? Whereas here in the old country the extra dirt makes us a bit more agitated.

    I mean just look at the French – they use less soap and they strike at the drop of a hat!

    (It’s hard to get across on blog comments but I’m actually trying to send up national stereotypes of cleanliness here. What’s that they say about jokes? If you have to explain it …)

  14. Antoinette says:

    My horrors aren’t dental but periodontal. Another one of the joys of middle age. I’ve always got floss in my pocket. It’s fear of the periodontist that has made my oral hygiene habits a trifle obsessive.

  15. THey used to give us fluoride tablets at school, horrible salty little pellets. I’d palm mine, then bury it later out on the playground.

  16. Dr. Empirical says:

    I saw the dentist regularly as a kid, but during the nomad years I never lived in the same place long enough to seek one out, so I lost the habit.

    It’s been 20 years by now. Perhaps I should go.

  17. Ginjoint says:

    Hey Kate, the CAT and bone scans are routine yearly things to see if the Big C has returned. The MRI is because I’m having some cognitive issues, and my oncologist’s wondering if the chemo damaged blood vessels in my brain. The MRI is because I’m having some cognitive issues, and my oncologist’s wondering…har har!

    The only tablets we were ever given in school were these little red ones that were supposed to show where we missed brushing our teeth. (The teacher had us brush our teeth first.) The idea was to demonstrate how thorough we needed to be when brushing. I found them delicious. Alison, I remember another story you did, about the stupid scarf dance the girls had to do in school. Didn’t you bury the notice for the performance or something? So your parents wouldn’t know about it? Hm. You and the burying. That right there’s some juicy fodder for the next therapy session, I tell you what.

  18. Ginjoint says:

    And Dr. E, show your teeth some love, and get thee to a dentist!

  19. hairball_of_hope says:

    @Ian (#13)

    But at least the French use bidets, so you know their butts are clean! :).

    And what’s wrong with spending one’s life in the shower? I love showering, the needle spray hot water feels so good on my aching body.

    You are right about Americans being clean freaks. More properly, germophobes. The current hysteria over H1N1 swine flu has made some folks a little over the top, beyond the usual fad of embedding antibacterial chemicals in every object that is used in a kitchen or touched by an infant.

    For example, these days I’m finding dispensers of Purell (alcohol-based waterless hand sanitizer) mounted near elevator lobby pushbuttons. Supposedly public contact surfaces such as elevator buttons, handrails, and doorknobs are prime transfer points for H1N1. I’ve actually seen people poking at elevator buttons with their elbows to avoid contact.

    Of course, these same people frequent bars where they are drinking out of glasses which are barely cleaned (ask any bartender, or observe the glass-washing under the bar). No telling what cooties they’ll pick up from the glasses.

    I’m waiting for folks to start wearing hazmat suits when flu season begins.

  20. hairball_of_hope says:

    @Ginjoint (#17)

    Those red tablets are called disclosure tablets, and the dye sticks to any film on one’s teeth. Chicago public water is fluoridated, so no fluoride tablets for you.

    I’m a bit surprised AB had fluoride tablets issued in school. I’d have to tap the brains of the hydrogeologists around here (not the fantasy Marshall, thank you!), but I would have guessed that the aquifers in Western PA leached enough fluoride into the municipal or well water supply to make additional fluoride unnecessary.

  21. Ready2Agitate says:

    For my first 5 years I lived on Long Island, place ‘o birth. Every day we kids took a “vitamin and fluoride” – yes, the salty tiny white tablet (as in: “Ready? Did you take your vitamin and fluoride yet?!”). When we moved to CT (I was close to 6 years old), the fluoride tablet ceased. Nonetheless, for some time I would ask my mom for my “vitaminin” – ha!

    The red dye “disclosure tablets” (where would I be without Hairball?) began in CT.

    fwiw, I credit those fluoride tablets, in part, with my good teeth (my parents’ mouths are quite bad next to me and my sisters’). Hygienists have also told me that they can tell I had those tablets by the enamel on my teeth.

    Ginjoint, good luck in that clanging pounding magnetic tube that makes one feel like they are inside of Boston’s Big Dig. MRI’s – so fun.

    June, great article – looking fw to the whole series. You’re a terrific writer.

  22. LA Steve says:

    The great wheel turns! SLATE becomes the new READER’S DIGEST with “I Am Alison’s Tooth.”

  23. Therry and St. Jerome says:

    And as for dentists, I have long history with perfectly splendid dentists who have dealt with my tea stained overbite for years and years. MY present dentist, on the other hand, is a clunk. He has great skills, but the chairside manner of intimidation and lack of communication. He tends to bully until he gets his way. I’m sitll seething that he bullied me into getting two of my perfectly fine wisdom teeth removed at the advanced age of hmm hmm hmm. He doesn’t trust wisdom teeth. That’s HIS issue, and I should have stood up to him and stood by my teeth.

    ST Jerome is a ginger tom and has hardly any teeth left. Evidently the genes for ginger go with the genes for lousy cat teeth. He still has his fangs, and bares them regularly.

  24. hairball_of_hope says:

    @R2A (#21)

    Ya was born on Lung Guyland, eh? What town? Ticky-tacky boxes of Levittown? I’m guessing you’re a South Shore kid from somewhere in Nassau County.

  25. grrljock says:

    It appears that I’m 2 for 2:

    1. I have the tell-tale tetracycline teeth (nobody told us Southeast Asian third-worlders to hold off on the tetracycline).

    2. I had deep-cleaning of two problematic ‘pockets’ in my gum this morning, which were probably caused by crowding (of my non-straight [heh], non-American teeth).

  26. hairball_of_hope says:

    @grrljock (#25)

    The tetracycline-stained teeth for third-worlders is also an economic issue. Tetracycline-class antibiotics such as doxycycline are very inexpensive broad spectrum antibiotics, costing only a few cents per dose. The non-tetracycline antibiotics that would be used in those situations are much more expensive, so even if they were available and a physician prescribed them, there’s a good possibility they wouldn’t be affordable.

    More first-world hegemony. And it shows up in teeth. :(.

  27. --MC says:

    K got a mouthguard cast — seems she’s been grinding her teeth in her sleep. They made a plaster cast of her teeth and shaped the guard to fit it. This morning, I opened the medicine cabinet to find the cast of her teeth staring out at me, on the top shelf next to the deodorant. A little memento mori to start the day.

  28. cybercita says:

    thanks, alison, i read all three articles. i’m an oral hygiene fanatic, partly because i work very closely with people and need to have good breath, and partly because i think that if you have an oral infection, every time you swallow, you’re infecting your entire body.

    i wonder if i could get my cat to let me brush his teeth?

  29. hairball_of_hope says:

    @cybercita (#28)

    They do sell toothpaste and a little rubber scrubby thing that fits over your finger for cats. I think the toothpaste is fish or liver flavored.

    My late cat had beautiful teeth, and he would let me do just about anything to him (he especially liked getting his ears cleaned).

    I never bothered with the cat toothpaste; I would take a damp washcloth, wrap it around my finger, and rub his teeth and gums about once a week. Crunchy dry food also helps clean their teeth, it’s all that soft puréed stuff that sticks to their teeth.

    Genetics helps too, of course. If the cat’s teeth have lots of plaque, ask your vet if s/he recommends having the cat’s teeth cleaned (the cat has to be sedated for the procedure, and that’s not always advisable for an older cat).

  30. noominal says:

    Kewl! Is that a gold tooth I spy in the back molar area? or, just the light reflecting off your vocal cords?

  31. Dr. Empirical says:

    R2A, where did you live in Connecticut? I grew up in Fairfield County, and spent a decade in the Quiet Corner.

  32. Ian says:

    @Noominal #30: Now there’s a question you don’t hear every day …

  33. Ready2Agitate says:

    HoHope, tell me what a “South Shore kid from somewhere in Nassau County” is like, and I’ll tell ya if it was me.

    Dr. E. I grew up in the suburbs outside of Hartford. I think that means you & I kinda lived in different states, right?

    ps HoHope – where do you get all your knowledge? I mean – wow.

  34. hairball_of_hope says:

    @R2A (#33)

    I’m a North Shore kid from Queens. I’m guessing you were from South Shore Nassau because of the fluoride tabs. If my memory serves me correctly, the towns of Hempstead, Rockville Center, etc. had these big water towers drawn from the aquifer, and the water supply was not fluoridated until long after the North Shore communities. There was no public sewer system on the South Shore until the mid-late 1970s, everyone on the South Shore had septic tanks.

    I’m also guessing you’re not quite 50 yet, so you would have moved to CT in the mid-1960s, in the middle of a very long drought in NY, during which the South Shore water table dropped precariously low.

    Taking another guess, I’ll say your family might have been part of the mass exodus of folks out of Roosevelt during the blockbusting era of the 1960s.

    How am I doing in the guessing department?

    As for the knowledge, that’s the Useless Information Department. Also, I’m old enough to have some dental tetracycline staining. ;).

  35. Andrew B says:

    Hm, that’s a much closer look at Alison’s big glistening choppers than I really needed to take. The bluish lighting from the Mac Book screen adds an extra touch of weirdness. Based on Alison’s “seeing the skeleton” comment, I take it she was trying to be a little spooky. After the last post’s picture and this one, I’m expecting the next post to carry a picture of Alison in Heath Ledger-as-Joker face paint.

    Kate L, 10, obviously you aren’t relying on Stephen King to provide an objective depiction of New England, but you’re basically right: he does use real features of the region effectively in his stories. The claustrophobic feeling one can get from the forests, hills, and valleys; the darkness of old abandoned mill buildings; the family burying grounds that are scattered all around. They’re all real, and they can be spooky.

    GJ, hope all your scans go well, your metatarsals haven’t switched places with your mandible or anything. (I frequently find my own metatarsals inserted just above my mandible, but that’s something different.) And it’s a good thing you told us you were having cognitive deficits. Nobody was going to figure it out, that’s for sure.

  36. hairball_of_hope says:

    @Andrew B (#35)

    “…my own metatarsals inserted just above my mandible…”

    Both metatarsals at once? I usually lower my mandible only to change metatarsals.

  37. Ellen Orleans says:

    My dentist’s office is more like a day spa. When you walk in, the staff offers you bottled water or tea. Before you have work done, you can have a warm wax dip for your hands. Very soothing. If you have an appointment in the morning, you can have your feet massaged while your teeth are examined. If you like, you can have earphones with your choice of a Pandora station.

    The staff are 95% women.

    I no longer dread the dentist, but I still don’t floss as much as I should.

  38. Lizzy says:

    Oh my…after reading that sob story I wish I’d worn my retainer more often.

  39. Kat says:

    I agree with Alison completely (and I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so) that teeth are kind of strange because it totally is a little bit of your skeleton sticking out!

    MC, I found the plaster cast of my mom’s teeth in a drawer one time when I was a kid. It scared the crap out of me, and I don’t think I opened that drawer willingly for a decade afterward!

  40. Jain says:

    Long Island girls? Levittown 1951-1953 here, followed by West Islip to 1967, Mom and sister still there.

  41. Zeugma says:

    @Ian (#13) and HOH (#19)

    Che said that cleanliness is a bourgeois obsession, but correct hygiene is a revolutionary necessity. :-)

  42. Feminista says:

    #41 Zeugma: How right you are.When my late husband was lax with his share of the housework,that’s one of the lines I quoted. My understanding is that Che said that to l@s gueriller@s when they were in the Sierra Madre Mts.in the late 50s. As the resident MD,he knew what he was talking about.

    Another line I used was from Chairman Mao: “Where the broom does not go,the dust does not vanish of itself.”

    Usually these reminders worked.

    Anyone who works in education,social services,health care,etc. is exposed to many viruses and other airborne infections. Frequent handwashing is the #1 recommended prevention method. So yes,I carry hand sanitizer with me and use it frequently,and I get an annual flu shot.

  43. Alex says:

    I know this is an older post by you, but, wow…that article(s) amazed me. TY for putting that out there.
    Now I know why I paid for that tooth implant…I was worth it.