Thursday, July 22, 2004


“Bracing” for Middle-Age — or — Is that a hamster in your mouth or are you just happy to see me?
Who am I kidding? Okay, so maybe this story did start out as a one-part reminiscence of my harrowing first trip to the dentist, and has now morphed into a history of all things dental in my life. It doesn't surprise me, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone else who knows me. If you've read this blog for any length of time you know that I could turn the answer to the question, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" into a 10,000-word thesis.

So I figured since I was already on a roll, and because this blog is ultimately my life story, I would continue to play out the story line, because one thing leads to another, and so on, and so on, and so on.

After having managed to live through my experiences with Dr. Hammer, my teeth were finally in good shape. We got an electric toothbrush as a family Christmas gift one year and suddenly, after having never previously brushed at all (to my recollection anyway), now brushing was fun. I still wasn’t as consistent as I should have been, but anything would have been an improvement.

Fast-forward now about five years. My Dad has re-married and we now are living in SoCal. Step-Mom Maxine says it’s time for a check-up. Understandably I wasn’t thrilled at the notion, but hey, I’m a teenager now, I can buck up and deal with it. But I couldn’t believe it when she told me the name of the dentist we were going to see. If you thought my first dentist's name was amusing, you'll love this one. Interestingly, his name was also James — Dr. James Sparks — I kid you not. What is UP with me and my dentists' names?

Dr. Sparks had been Maxine's family dentist for years, so naturally when we arrived on the scene, he became ours as well. Dr. Sparks and his family went to our church, and he had a daughter my age that I became friends with. Nice girl. She used to work as a receptionist in her Dad's office in the summertime during our high school years. That always made my dental check-ups a little easier to take.

Thankfully my checkups were always good as a teenager. The combination of being forced by penalty of Step-Mom’s wrath to brush my teeth after every meal and the fluoridated water in California, created an oral hygiene consciousness that pretty much changed my life. It is this and many other similar changes Maxine brought about in my life that make me so grateful to her, despite the way she treated me in the process. But that’s another story for another blog.

During the time I spent living at home and under the umbrella of medical care provided by my parents, I only needed a minimum of dental work done. I had one cavity in those six years, but had to have two of the ten or so previous fillings by Dr. Hammer re-done, additionally. I felt pretty good about that, but when I got married I learned the true meaning of the truism, “it’s all relative.” Michelle has never had a cavity in her lifetime. Her teeth are like white diamonds or something. The tooth fairy never visited her house when she was a kid. When she lost a tooth her parents used to sell ‘em to local factories to be fashioned into industrial drill bits for cryin’ out loud…(cue the rimshot, please...)

Well hopefully our kids got her teeth instead of mine.

This is some of wisdom I didn’t need
As I entered my twenties, both before and after I got married, I continued to take care of my teeth as well as I could, but wasn’t geting regular dental check-ups. I still avoided the dentist like the plague.

Then one morning in 1980, I woke up with what felt like an ear ache on my left side. I recently had battled an infection in that same ear, so I thought it was flaring up again. It wasn’t long however before the pain and pressure told me that it was something else. I was pretty naïve about wisdom teeth: what they were and how they affected someone. I’d heard people talk about getting them removed, but it was really a subject I didn’t know much about. Michelle suggested I go see the dentist, and I did. My dentist at the time (he must have had a normal name since I can’t remember what it was) took some x-rays and confirmed what we had guessed. Three of my possible four wisdom teeth had come in, but they were all impacted. They all had to come out.

My dentist said that he wasn’t set up to perform such a procedure, but referred me to a local oral surgeon. He placed my mind at relative ease when he told me that since this was actual surgery, I’d need to be completely anesthetized. I’d be asleep for the whole thing.

The procedure was fairly unremarkable and certainly non-traumatic. I showed up, climbed into the chair, they gave me the gas and out like a light I went. When I woke up I was obviously groggy and my jaw had that long ago familiar feeling of numbness I remembered from my childhood. The Doctor gave Michelle a prescription for painkillers and said I’d need them later that evening.

Would I ever.

There are only two times in my life when I’ve been awakened by pain. Once a few years earlier, when I had messed up my knee in a freak accident at a pool party, and this instance, when I woke up at 8:00 P.M. screaming in pain when the drugs wore off.


Michelle came running. I can remember, as the light behind Michelle standing in the open door flooded the dark bedroom. I sat up in agony and looked down to see a small pool of blood on my pillow.

That was as much pain as I think I’ve ever felt at one time. Fortunately the painkillers did their job and I recovered quickly, although I did have a brief bout with “dry socket” as the tissue filled the gash in my gums from the extraction of my wisdom teeth.

The experience was certainly no picnic, but it was also not nearly the wisdom teeth horror story that I’ve heard from some other people. All things considered, I think I got off relatively easy.

I think the reason I decided to expand this story into an “all-things dental” recap of my life is that it basically begins and ends with Dr. Hammer. Because of his ill-begotten plan to yank out all of my baby teeth before I was ten years old, with the intention of giving my permanent teeth room to come in straight backfired miserably. The lateral incisors on my right side were horribly crowded and so when they came in during the summer between 10th and 11th grade, they overlapped their surrounding neighbors by a good margin. As I said earlier, it wasn’t grotesque by any means, but the right side of my smile certainly wasn’t pretty either. I was fairly self-conscious about it too.

However there was a solution at my disposal, should I decide to exercise it. Depending where you live and what your level of savvy about industry in general is, you may know that working in the grocery industry is one of the most under-rated occupations going. It really is a pretty decent job — but let me qualify that. It is a decent job if it’s unionized. You may recall my writing about the short period of time I spent working at a grocery store here in Tennessee (which is a “right-to-work” state) when we were deeply in debt and I needed to generate some supplemental income. The “right-to-work” classification means that no union can force you to join as a qualification for working at a specific job here in Tennessee. However, if you don’t join the union, you also have no benefits, and substantially lower pay. And the thing that made working in the business when I was in California, was just that — the pay and benefits. Otherwise the grocery biz is no better than a glorified fast-food job. It sucks.

But again, I digress…

Back to my wisdom tooth extraction. Must have been pretty expensive, right? Even the dentist’s visit, they’re not cheap. How ‘bout having two babies, the hospital and pediatrician costs. Or when I screwed up my knee or the ear infection I mentioned earlier, requiring a visit to an Ear, Nose & Throat specialist.

All those things were covered under my Retail Clerks Union benefits. I didn’t pay a dime for any of them.

I started working in the grocery biz when I was seventeen. I was fully vested six months later and I could have at any time gotten braces to correct Heir Doktor’s miscalculation. However, the thought of having appliances bending my mouth into shape wasn’t exactly exhilarating. It was something I knew I needed to do and would never do if I had to pay for it out of my own pocket. But knowing there would surely be pain involved, the childhood demons of my Dr. Hammer experience reared their ugly head every time I would think about it. I’d get it done, but not right now. “Maybe next year.” Being the procrastinator I am though, it was beginning to look like “next year” would never come.

But it finally did.

In the summer of 1986, I got a call from an Art Director in Los Angeles with whom I had interviewed a few weeks previously. At the time I had been working freelance, coming up with whatever Commercial Illustration and small graphic design jobs I could, to begin establishing myself in my career as a Graphic Designer. However our primary income was still derived from my grocery biz job — Michelle had quit working by this time and was a stay-at-home mom with our two young children.

I was beginning to realize that push was finally coming to shove. I was experiencing time conflicts between my day job and my career objective. The situation was exacerbated by my new relationship with the aforementioned Art Director, who we’ll call Caitlin. She offered me consistent work, but she also lived 40 miles away, through the busiest traffic in the LA area. So working with her was a major time commitment.

Finally I made the decision to cut the security cord between the grocery biz and me, and step out into the real world. The real part set in when I got the letter in the mail from the union notifying me that my benefits package would expire as of September 1, 1986. Fortunately, they provided the option of paying a substantial, but very reasonable fee to continue the medical benefits for up to two additional quarters following a member’s resignation from the industry. So we ponied up the money for as long as we were allowed to, because with a four and two year-old at home, the “what ifs” of having no insurance were pretty daunting.

And there was also the issue of my braces. It was now or never. Oh and, did I mention that I’m a chronic procrastinator? The benefits were finally due to run out on March 31, 1987. I waited until the last week before I finally made an appointment with an orthodontist.

Yep, I was 31 years old and getting braces. Although such a concept wasn’t completely outlandish even back then, it certainly wasn’t commonplace either. I would surely get some looks. And just as I had always feared, I was going to have to have some teeth pulled to make room for the rest of them to be straightened. Joy.

The good news is that I lucked out and found a union plan-approved orthodontist who also happened to be one the best around. He was great and made the whole process as easy as I could have imagined.

The experience was pretty unremarkable, and outside of the hassles of wearing rubber bands and developing calluses on the inside of your mouth, there really isn’t a lot to talk about.

I wore those braces from March 1987 until October 1990. Three and a half years of looking like I had a hamster stuffed up under my lip. It was uncomfortable, but definitely worth the burden, as my smile is now perfect, and I’m more motivated than ever to keep it that way.

All in all, my dental history has been pretty remarkable given its early history. I no longer fear trips to the dentist, because only twice in the last 30 years have I had to deal with a novocaine shot (apart from the tooth extractions I had to get for my braces). Once to replace another one of Dr. Hammer’s old fillings, and a second to fill a small cavity, my first in many, many years.

Shame on me!

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