Observations on a Toothache
Well, I’m scheduled at the dentist at 3pm to deal with the cracked molar, and until then I have a toothache which occasionally throbs up, but is mostly under control at the moment thanks to the dynamic duo of ibuprofen and Orajel. Be that as it may it’s too distracting to allow me to be terribly creative at the moment, so instead allow me to offer some thoughts on me and my toothache.
First, I feel lucky to be alive in the relatively small slice of human history during which dentistry is a licensed medical profession, said doctors have an understanding and appreciation for basic hygiene, and we have access to lovely, lovely mouth-numbing painkillers. Considering the vast majority of humanity typically had their teeth pulled by people who also doubled as hairdressers, and had to feel every single yank and twist until it was over, the advantages to being alive now should not be understated.
Second, this is a reminder that sometimes things just happen. Four years ago today, as it happens, I wrote my “Being Poor” essay, in which one of the things I noted was “Being Poor is hoping the toothache goes away.” To which some arch twit who thought he was very clever responded in the comments that being poor doesn’t excuse people from brushing their teeth, and did not appear to want to be convinced that the simple act of brushing one’s teeth does not mean one then has blanket immunity from all subsequent dental issues.
And, well: Hello, I brush and floss my teeth daily. I go to regular checkups as recommended by my dentist. I do not chew rocks or coat my teeth with a solution of sugar and acid directly before I go to sleep. I do everything I’m supposed to do for my teeth and mostly none of the stuff I’m not, and yet one morning — today — I woke up and one of my teeth was cracked. Why? Oh, possibly because I’m a 40-year-old man and this particular molar has been in constant use in my mouth since I was twelve or so, and also possibly because shit just happens, and also possibly because a tooth brush is not, in fact, the magical talisman against life that this smug jackass appeared to think it was.
Now, fortunately for me, I don’t have to just hope that this toothache goes away. As soon as I realized this wasn’t just some random transient pain I hopped on the phone, called my dentist’s office, and was delighted that he was able to drop me into his schedule for the day. I can do this because I have dental insurance and can afford the co-pay without problem. That said, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where I wasn’t so fortunate, without having to resort to being poor. I could be unmarried, for example, since my insurance comes through my wife. Alternately I could stay married and have my wife unemployed, laid off because of cuts her company made due to the recession, and then the full cost of the insurance we have would fall on us, at least until the COBRA runs out, and it would be an open question as to whether we could afford it.
If my wife couldn’t find another job with health/dental benefits — and where we live there are lots of jobs that skip that part — it’d fall on me to cover it. I’m a successful writer, but I also know that much of my success comes from luck; there are other writers who work as hard and are as good at writing as I, who are not as financially successful. I could be in a situation where I (like most writers) don’t make a whole lot of money and would have trouble purchasing a health and dental plan for myself, much less my wife and our child. If I didn’t have dental insurance, I might have to decide whether I want to fix my tooth or pay some other bills first; I might decide it makes more financial sense to chew on aspirin for a while.
And so on. Again, these are some of the situations one might find one’s self in without having to go all the way to being genuinely in poverty here in the US. Not all of these situations are entirely under one’s control, and not all of them are one’s fault. There are lots of people who have cause to hope the toothache goes away, and to dread if it doesn’t, and not just because some guy is fiddling around in their mouth with a high speed drill.
This is what it is (which is not to say it is what it has to be, which is another thing entirely), and what it does is remind me that I really am a fortunate bastard in lots of little ways that don’t bear thinking about until thinking about them is required. I don’t stay up nights thinking “gee, it’s nice that if I crack a tooth I can take care of it with a minimum of fuss,” but when I do crack a tooth, I think it’s worth noting that there are many ways in which it would be a serious problem, were my life just a degree or two off the direction it’s going.
It’s particularly useful when I’m feeling smug and thinking my life is as it is solely because I made it that way on my own. In the real world, what we do with our lives matters, but our lives are lived in a world that is more than just what we make of it. And sometimes you get toothaches.