You Know Your Mouth: Week #1 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On dentists, dental harassment, and oral epistemology
I got my first crown at the tender age of 23. I had avoided the dentist for seven years (the old story: no insurance), and during that sabbatical from professional oral care I developed a cavity the relative size of the Columbia River Gorge. The dentist took one look at my crumbling molar and announced that there wasn’t enough tooth material left to support a filling, so he would have to put a crown on it. I was covered in shame. First of all, I felt guilty somehow—even though I brushed and flossed like an anchorite with OCD, and I knew that tooth decay has less to do with oral hygiene than with genetics and unfluoridated water, I still felt responsible for the calamity. (Years later I would meet someone in his 40s who had never had a filling, and I couldn’t help but view him as a superior being.) Second of all, it made me feel old. I knew that my father’s mouth (at that time aged 57—not that much older than my own mouth is now) was full of crowns, and my mother had had all her teeth pulled and replaced with dentures before she was 40. (Apparently this is what “they” did “back then,” along with offering full anesthesia during childbirth and prescribing cigarettes for weight loss.) So I associated dental prostheses with middle age, if not outright dotage. It was embarrassing to need a crown so soon after I could order a legal drink in a bar. What other involuntary indignities awaited around the corner? A blue rinse in my hair1 and support hose before age 30?
I got the crown and it stayed obediently in place for nearly 20 years, and in the meantime I had no need for further dental work other than regular cleanings. Shortly after I turned 40, I started going to a new dentist (chosen according to the highly rigorous criterion of proximity to our apartment), and during my initial checkup he asked me how old the crown was. I should have lied, because 1. apparently he couldn’t tell, and 2. as soon as I told him he pounced. “Oh that will need to be replaced. Crowns only last 10 years.” But, I said to myself, this one is still lasting...? He turned to the hygienist and set up an appointment for me before I could protest. Well, I thought, I suppose he knows best. Maybe there’s some kind of new space-age crown technology available now and I should take advantage of it.
During the crown replacement appointment, there was (of course) a lot of drilling and (perhaps less essential) a lot of pressing of the dentist’s crotch against my shoulder and arm. It did occur to me that there might be a more efficient way to set up the surgery chair so that the dentist didn’t have to rotate his crotchular area into the plane of existence of the prostrate patient—but again, I supposed he knew what he was doing and it was surely an accident each and every time. (In subsequent years I have experienced this mysterious pressing phenomenon from a physical therapist and an eye doctor as well. So obviously it is an occupational hazard of anyone with a crotch performing any kind of medical care on any patient. Right?)
At one point in the middle of the procedure, during which I was offered no breaks to rest my aching jaw, my mouth decided it had had enough and involuntarily closed on the dentist’s hand. My teeth didn’t break the skin or anything; it was just a reflexive action that didn’t involve any real, well, bite. Nevertheless, I was mortified. “I’m so sorry!” I stammered, as soon as he had jerked his hand away and I had my tongue back. “I didn’t mean to do that! It was an accident. I’m really just so sorry.” He bent deeply over my chair and whispered directly into my ear so that the dental technician assisting him couldn’t hear: “It’s okay. I liked it.” Then he grinned wolfishly at me (attractively, in his mind; assaultingly, in my mind) and continued with the procedure. I can think of very few places where one has less option to get up and leave in high dudgeon than when sitting in a dentist’s chair with a mouth full of novocaine and an exposed nerve. Later, in the checkout area after the procedure was over, he told me all about his band and when and where they were playing, and then he grinned at me again, this time without his mask so I could see his teeth. They were all filed into points, like a demonic little picket fence in his mouth.
After finding another dentist, the best dentist in the entire universe, whose unfortunate and utterly inappropriate name was Dr. Hacker (there never was a gentler or more considerate practitioner), I learned that the crown I had recently had replaced by Dr. Pointyteeth McCrotcherson was a botched job. It didn’t fit well, and the nerve underneath had been irritated to the point where I needed a root canal. Of course my insurance wouldn’t reimburse another crown on the same tooth within a year, so I had to pay out of pocket for another one, plus undergo the joys of a wholly unnecessary endodontic procedure. (Side note: root canals are not painful, and I don’t understand why they are the punchline of jokes about horrible experiences. If you are looking for a more fitting emblem of horrible experiences, might I suggest being sexually assaulted by your dentist.) My relationship with the kind, gentle, understanding, empathetic Dr. Hacker continued for several years, through many tender consultations and one more crown that he lovingly handcrafted partly from gold in the back2 and ceramic in the front, where the tooth was visible when I smile. (Fast-forward to my next dentist, who let out a low whistle on seeing this crown and said, “Someone sure took some care with that piece of work.”) Eventually Dr. Hacker retired and the monkeys made sorrowful noise overhead.
I recently went to the dentist for the first time in two years. Moving from Canada to Mississippi plus a 15-month pandemic lockdown combined to make dentist appointments impossible, and I was worried about what my exam would reveal. But my obsessive flossing tendencies stood me in good stead, and apparently we stop getting cavities so much as we age (irony!), so everything was in pretty good shape. But—I needed to have a crown put on a tooth with an old large filling that had started to leak. I have some (understandable?) PTSD around crowns, the saintly Dr. Hacker notwithstanding, so I was filled with mild dread as I headed to the follow-up appointment. And pretty much everything that could go wrong did. My dentist wanted to use a newfangled contraption to 3D-print a permanent crown right on the spot, but it was the technician’s first time using the machine and after fussing and fussing over it, receiving tutorials on its use as I sat there for an extra hour with my jaws propped open like a cornhole target,3 she and the dentist finally gave up and gave me a traditional temporary crown. And then the temporary crown came off, and/or broke into pieces, or both, a total of four (maybe five?) times in the next week and half—I lost count. It definitely was not my fault, since by the second or third mishap I decided to eschew my usual diet of toffee apples, peanut brittle, and jawbreakers and was subsisting entirely on pudding and buttered toast—but still, it kept falling off. I got to know the receptionists who answer my dentist’s after-hours text line pretty well.
Finally, finally, it was permanent-crown placement day. I hobbled (metaphorically) into the office with a splintered crown in my mouth, half of which was held in place by some emergency Polident and the other half with my nightguard, which I had been wearing for the previous 24 hours. After the technician had wiggled the pieces out of my jaw, my tongue involuntarily slithered over to the empty space, and immediately set up an alarm when it felt a jagged edge sticking into my mouth. “I’m so sorry,” I said to the technician. “But it feels like maybe part of the crown is still stuck on there? I know you know what you’re doing!” I unnecessarily apologized again, “But it definitely feels like there’s something wrong.” She said she’d look again. “No need to apologize!” she cheerfully responded. “You know your mouth.”
I do indeed. I do know my mouth, I thought, with a tinge of undeserved pride. Is there anything more intimate than the way we know our own mouths? It’s the only area of our bodies that we know from the inside, that we feel the inside of, in ways that can’t be replicated by touching from the outside. There are other private parts of my body that not many other people have had access to, but my experience of touching them is the same as theirs: from the outside, with hands (usually),4 as a temporary visitor on a journey of exploration. The way we know our mouths is profoundly different: of course we can put our fingers in our mouths and touch the same things our tongues touch, but the information is not the same. The hand can never know what it’s like to be the tongue. The hand is guessing, but the tongue knows.
As I type this, my tongue is still going on little patrols around the new crown—even though I have consciously forgotten about it, my tongue remembers and is on the case. Are you still there? it asks as it shyly sidles up to the interloper and gently touches it again. After an untold number of repetitions of this little mating dance, my tongue and my new crown will reach a rapprochement and decide to co-exist. That part of my lizard brain that’s responsible for maintaining a hyper-detailed map of the inside of my mouth (why?) will eventually turn off the high alert code and decide that the new configuration is acceptable. My tongue and my new crown will settle in together and their relationship will become comfortable, familiar; they’ll start to take each other for granted; they’ll no longer kiss good morning and good night every day.
This is what the tongue needs to do in order to get along. Accept the things thrown at it, the invasive foreign objects and random jagged edges. Conform and soften around the interlopers. Sometimes the insult will be too sharp and the alert code will never turn off, but usually the tongue decides to settle down and live with the new normal; it’s just easier that way. It has private information it cannot share, a secret language it cannot communicate even to other tongues. It is profoundly alone. It is replete. It is inviolate.
Funnily enough, yes! It was shortly after this period that I discovered Manic Panic and the hipster coolness of deliberately blue hair.
Gold for durability! Everyone should get gold crowns! They last forever! But insurance companies don’t want to pay for them!
I realized after writing it that this joke might seem much dirtier than it really is to those who don’t use the word “cornhole” to refer to the game where you toss beanbags at slanted wooden platforms with holes in them, often with a clown’s mouth painted around the hole. (Why?) I think some people call this game “bean bag toss.” At any rate, any compound word with “hole” as its second component always sounds kind of dirty; it can’t be helped.
Interesting side note: sometimes the visitor is another tongue! But in that case, the information the outside tongue imparts to its connected human is similar to that given by a hand. Each tongue can only truly know its own mouth.