preemptive guilt

why is it that, the week before you are scheduled to go to the dentist, your teeth start hurting. you have those weird nightmares where your molars crack like chalky pepto bismol tablets in your mouth, and your gums start to bleed.

knowing somehow that you’ll have a bad checkup, your mind starts to play tricks. what yesterday was simply an unexplored ripple in your bicuspid is now a gaping cavity – or so it feels as you run your tongue over the spot. and wasn’t that twinge as you sipped your coffee this morning some kind of warning that there may be root canals in your future?

a little extra anxiety drives you to floss for the first time in five months – the last time was a few weeks after your last appointment, with the honest and sincere intention of flossing every day, dammit. suddenly the toothbrush you stopped bringing to work is back in your briefcase, and brushing after lunch makes so much more sense.

so, bleeding gums and all, you sit down in the reclining, surprisingly comfortable, torturous dentist’s chair. though latex clad fingers and cold metal instruments make it difficult to meditate on the holes in the ceiling tiles in a zen-like state of semiconsciousness, nonetheless you try to avoid the thoughts of decay and bacterial infestation that loom in your primitive brain – the part that thinks in grunts and pain and fight or flight responses. after what feels like hours of prodding and poking with sharp metal hooks and scraping by tiny rasping files – no wonder your gums bleed – the real cleaning begins.

these days it’s either a scaled down industrial sandblaster, filled with salt and baking soda – and what’s that about anyway? did someone stumble onto that perfect dental cleansing recipe when baking a cake? – or else it’s a tiny rubber squeegee, rotating at a few hundred rpm, coated with an abrasive paste.

the paste can be either cinnamon, mint, cherry, or just plain crap flavor. they all taste the same after they’ve been scorched by the heat of friction on tooth enamel.

and when the dentist finally arrives, sweeping in and kicking out the obsequios hygienist lackey, he sits down to a pristine mouth. if i were to be a dentist, and be forced to reach into the gaping pieholes of strangers day after day, picking out the bits that need to be drilled out, spackled in, and polished, i think i’d like to be the guy whose name is on the door. if you’re that guy, you never see a nasty mouth – they’re all purged of plaque and tartar and heavy-on-the-garlic pizza with everything leftovers by the time you see them.

and it’s this purging that makes all the difference. you could go six months without so much as thinking about your teeth, doing the cursory brush every morning, and when you feel like it before bed. then, the week before your next appointment, the day that postcard arrives with a happy tooth on the front, or a dancing brush, or some other insipid cartoon, saying you’d that, ‘to tell the tooth, it’s time for your next cleaning!’

so for a week, your mind races, wondering what if you haven’t flossed enough – or at all – wondering if the sticky sweet candies, at least a handful every day, haven’t pulled every filling loose, rotted new holes in the pitted landscape of your mouth, wondering if maybe, just maybe, brushing five or six times just before going to the dentist will make up for the weeks of neglect, and forcing a waxed piece of string between your teeth for the first time in months, cutting deep into already swollen and abused gums, will maybe save you the scornful glare of the hygienist between stories about her terminally cute children.

and maybe it does.

maybe the week of preemptive guilt, of anticipating the worst, makes some kind of difference. your checkup typically goes well, with no new cavities, maybe a harsh word about the gums, but in general, a good day of dentistry. one week every six months of fretting over those things you’ve neglected serves to remind you that, in the cosmic sense, you really don’t need to give a damn about some things. a little attention once in a while, to be sure that the universe is still working the way it always did, is sometimes plenty.

after all, you’ve got better things to worry about.

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