Teeth: who needs ’em – THIS IS NOT A TEST #41 (transcript)

Published October 3, 2015

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Beep beep! It’s Michael Phillips and THIS IS NOT A TEST, don’t you know. Welcome to Thunderdome, I know you won’t break the rules because there aren’t any. Only this: two men enter, one man leaves. Ah, Beyond Thunderdome, the weakest of the Mad Max trilogy – and it was and will always and forever be a trilogy, no matter how many more they make – but Carol and I were talking about it the other day and I think we’re going to watch it this weekend. I don’t think I’ve seen it since it was in the theaters. Man, I looked forward to that movie, and man, it was a letdown at the time. But since a couple decades have passed, it’s probably safe to watch it again. Maybe I’ll even like it. But anyone can talk about movies. Let’s talk about teeth instead! Everyone has them. Or had them. I talked a little bit about going to the doctor last week, or more specifically, not going to the doctor, but there is a doctor of sorts that I seem to go to all the time, and that’s the dentist. How are your teeth? Mine are like the bottom of a limestone strip mine. Just little pieces of cast off rubble everywhere. Lest you think that means that my personal hygiene must be disgusting, let me assure you that is not the case. I’m always clean. And I take good care of my teeth. Now. I didn’t always, but that’s because as a little kid I was taken to a dentist who was a sadistic butcher.

Well, let me back up for a minute, because pretty much all dentists were sadistic butchers until recently. Science and technology have done more for dentistry than they have for most of the rest of us and our needs. But dentistry has never been a particularly specific or exacting science if you think about it. And in the 1960s when I was a little kid first going to the dentist, their technology basically consisted of gas to get you high while they drilled into your teeth or pulled them out of your head. Which is bad enough, but we all suffered equally, didn’t we? Well most of us. I grew up in a small town, a really small town, and there was one dentist. He was your only choice unless you wanted to drive to the next town to get your teeth did. I didn’t know anyone who drove to the next town for the dentist, so everyone used this guy, who I’ll call kindly doctor Sam, which wasn’t his name, but I don’t want to use his name because, honestly, I don’t remember it.

Well going to see kindly doctor Sam was an ordeal, mainly because I was a little kid and no little kid likes to get their mouths all ripped up and then be handed a sucker when it was all over. A sucker, yeah, the dentist would give me a sucker. To insure a continuous flow of business no doubt. But it turned out he had another way to do that. So there I am as a kid going to kindly doctor Sam, and it seems like every time I’m in there I have new cavities in my teeth to be filled. Now I ate as much candy as the next kid, but it wasn’t like I was surviving on 2 liter bottles of Coke and bowls full of jellybeans. But every time I walked into that bastard’s office I knew I’d be getting the drill. And since his method for easing the pain was gas rather than something effective like Novocain, it was always an awful, painful experience, and it didn’t take long for me to – grow averse to seeing the dentist, you might say.

But not before he put fillings into every molar I had. Which, if it sounds excessive, it was. In fact, when I was in my 20s someone told me, “Hey, you remember kindly doctor Sam?” Yeah, I sure do. “Well he was convicted of fraud. Turns out he was drilling into healthy teeth just to squeeze more money out of everyone.” Which explained a lot, but it didn’t exactly help me. Fillings, you know, in your teeth, they aren’t a permanent thing. And old fillings always have to be made bigger when they’re replaced, which, after a while leads you have really shitty, fragile teeth, which is what happened to me. In my late 20s they started breaking around the fillings and generally falling apart. In my 20s. I wondered if weak teeth ran in my family, but they don’t. My parents teeth didn’t crumble out of their heads. So there I was in my late 20s, starting to get root canals on my molars. You can see where this is going. I have suffered greatly at the hands of my teeth, if teeth have hands, which I’m pretty sure mine do. Hands, feet and cold, malevolent hearts, each one of them.

Anyway, the term “root canal” is like a corny old punch line that they used to use to indicate the worst pain a human can feel, you know, if there was some horrible thing that had to be done, someone would say, “I’d rather get a root canal!” So when my dentist at the time said root canal, I just thought, oh, hell no, but then when you’re sitting there in the chair with a tooth with a big jagged chunk broken off of it – or a few such teeth – you aren’t really in a position to negotiate. So I got a root canal. Then another and another and honestly I have no idea how many I’ve had since. But I know some have been redone twice, and one maybe even three times. But here’s where technology or science or whatever comes in to the picture, because I went in to that first root canal thinking I was going to the electric chair or something, but it was really nothing. It’s a long, uncomfortable process, but pain-wise, not really anything to complain about. And when it’s all over they put a crown onto the stump that you’re left with, which sounds very fancy, a crown, and who doesn’t love being fancy. So I learned to — not love, but embrace the root canal and crown. It’s always easy to embrace something when you don’t have much choice in the matter, but embrace sounds better than surrender. They are expensive and time consuming and inconvenient, but when it’s all said and done you get an awesome new looking tooth for your $1500. It’s all an illusion, since your old tooth is still under there, but as illusions go it’s a pretty good one.

Then 10 or 15 years after that phase, that period of my dental life history, I learned my next big tooth lesson, and that is, crowns don’t last forever. They break too, or the tooth underneath, even though it should be cleaned up and sealed in, it can still get spots of decay, which means off comes the crown – and into the garbage can, because now you need a new one – and more work on the tooth stump. Getting rid of the decay or, as I mentioned, re-doing part or all of the root canal. So that was the cycle I was caught in. A sad little cretin made a bunch of holes in my probably healthy teeth, those holes just continued getting bigger and then new ways of fixing the teeth had to be found. because we must preserve the tooth! The tooth must be saved! And I get that, if you can afford it it’s always good to save whatever is left of the tooth, because until not too long ago, the fake tooth options were pretty sad. Dentures and bridges – which just cause problems in the teeth on either side of the hole. It was pretty grim.

But then science and technology and progress came to our rescue again, and gave us the miracle of the dental implant. And that’s where I’m at these days. I’ve exhausted my options with some of these tired old teeth, and I have to get them extracted. Removed, pulled, hacked out. I made it to my 50s before I lost a tooth, and considering the shape they were in, I should probably count that as a victory. But as miraculous as the implants are, the removal of the old tooth – not so miraculous. It’s a very physical and ugly procedure. As I speak to you now I am nursing a new hole where a tooth used to be. This is the third tooth I’ve had to have extracted, and it was all the way in the back, and as one specialist told me, I have extraordinarily long roots on some of my teeth, so this one, this extraction was pretty brutal. Over an hour in the chair, a lot of cracking and grinding and pulling, and when a tooth is being pulled the people pulling it kind of treat your jaw and face like anchors or anvils or something, because they need to push and pull and all of that pushing and pulling in on your skull or jaw.

But as 17th century as pulling a tooth is, the way they can replace that missing tooth now is pretty damn impressive. The way a dental implant works is they screw a post into your skull or jaw bone. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it. It sounded crazy to me when I first heard about it, but now I have a couple so it doesn’t sound crazy anymore. Isn’t that interesting, the way that happens. Something can see so ridiculous and idiotic and you can laugh and laugh at it, then one day for whatever reason you end up using that ridiculous thing, or doing it and then, as if by magic or royal decree, it instantly becomes cool. Well that’s me and implants. But the fucking things are expensive. I go to a dentist in Pasadena, and I know there are places I could go get an implant for less than I pay, but remember what an implant is? Someone screwing an inch and a half long metal post into your skull. If I’m doing that I’m not going to comparison shop, I’m going to go with someone I know and trust. When I say expensive, I mean that if I get this third implant – I’m not sure yet – I’ll have spent as much on dental implants as I did on my car, which I bought new from a dealer.

Which is one of the problems with all of this tooth shit, the expense. I’m not a rich man, but my dental expenses are kind of crazy. I shop the hell out of everything else and always look for the best way to do something for the least possible money. I’m not cheap but I really don’t like wasting money. I really hate wasting money, I should say. But when it comes to my teeth – it’s like I’m like hypnotized in there. My dentist says, “We’ll do this and that, then we’ll get started on that implant,” and I just go, “Okay Dr. Mak…” Even if I thought about it beforehand, which I did with the first one, and decided against it. “Fuck it,” I thought, “so I won’t have a tooth there. There are a billion people walking around without a tooth where one is supposed to be. So what. Who cares.” But then Dr. Mak said, “We’ll get started on that implant,” and I went right along with it. I am helpless in that office I tell you. I’ll sign anything, pay anything. I have no idea why that is. I go in for the appointment, sign the paper and they say, “It’s going to be $1600 today,” which is what I heard last week. Or $900 or $1800 or just a couple of months ago, $2400. Just sick amounts of money that, if I was buying anything else I’d stop and say, “Wait, what? No.”

And when I think about the total spent on any given single tooth it really makes me want to cry. Take one of my root canal and crowns, for instance. Actually this applies to two of them. In my 20s I paid about $600 for that root canal and crown, which is about $900 now with inflation. Then that crown and root canal were done again, another $1400. Then later a specialist to try to save the tooth, $700. He can’t do it. Has to be pulled, that’s $300. Then the bone graft is $600 – that’s necessary if you’re getting an implant – the post and implant tooth, almost three grand. So that one tooth, to get to where it is now with the wonderful futuristic implant there, cost $6700 or $6800. Even if I don’t count all the past stuff, I seem to end up paying about $4000 for an implant, start to finish. Oh, and start to finish is almost a year, by the way. The tooth I had extracted at the end of September – if I get an implant in there, it won’t be finished until next summer. In the meantime, I’ll spend a couple months with it the way it is now – just a void – waiting for the bone graft to take. Then they screw in the post and wait another six months while the bone grows in nice and tight around it. During those six months you have a post sticking out of your gums. Well, it doesn’t really stick out, but there’s just this metal thing there. My first one took almost 11 months, the second about 10 months. And all that money.

So you might wonder why bother with all of that, and the answer is, really I don’t know. I don’t know why I go through it. How much longer could I have to live? Seriously, if we’re being realistic, 25 years? 30 years? Would it be so bad to have some gaps in my toothage for that time? Would my quality of life be lessened somehow? I don’t know. Maybe. The gaps where a tooth is missing have been kind of inconvenient, I’ll admit that, but since it’s always been temporary I didn’t think too much about it. Maybe it would really suck to have that gap and know it was just always going to be there. But I think I could do it. We all get used to all kinds of changes, as we age or as we change our bodies for sport or for fun. So I don’t know why I spend the money on the teeth. It’s some psychological thing that I must have. But no one wants to delve too deeply into that, do they. My psychology in particular or anyone’s psychology in general. No good can come of that.

But it’s just another thing, teeth, bones, whatever you happen to break and need fixed. Just another thing to drain us a little bit more. Tooth problems always make me think of the old frontier days, or really any time before the 20th century. I had a list of causes of death in London for some year in the 1700s and one of the items on that list was teeth. Cause of death: teeth. I can believe that. Usually before I get to the point where these teeth need to be recrowned or come out, I go through a few infections in the tooth. Well, the infections are in the gum under the tooth I guess, but wherever they are, that is some painful shit. Touch the tooth with your tongue and you just want to jump off a cliff. So I can only imagine getting something like that a couple hundred years ago. You’d go to the barber and he’d bust up that tooth and pull it out, but then does the infection go away or does it just fester until your jaw falls off? I don’t know, but something tells me no one lived through more than one or two tooth infections back in the day. They probably died from it before they had a chance to experience it twice.

Jesus, I’ve been running around way too much during the past week and a half. Blood lab, dentist, car mechanic, doctor, dentist again – who needs this shit? I don’t like having someplace to be, somewhere to go. I have to go to work every day, isn’t that enough? Work is already an imposition and an insult. I mean the time is. I should probably talk about work one of these days, because it’s one of those things that everyone has an opinion on. But anyway, some people love to be busy, to have things to do, I know, I live with one of those people. But my ideal day or week or year involves having nothing to do. I don’t want to go fishing or climb a mountain or see the pyramids. Okay, I’d like to go to Iceland, but other than that, travel just bugs me.

It’s inconvenient and uncomfortable and crowded, if you fly, anyway. If you drive it’s not much better. Drive, stop, gas, piss, eat, drive, stop, sleep, drive, stop, gas, piss, eat, drive…then maybe you get somewhere, and you stand there and wonder what the hell? Okay, I wonder what the hell. Maybe you are enchanted when I’m disenchanted and wondering. For someone who doesn’t like to travel I’ve been all over the damn place. But a lot of that all over the place happened when I was younger and more up for discomfort or outright hardship. The older I get the more of a cliche I become, and when I travel somewhere I want to stay in a good hotel, not on someone’s couch. I don’t want to ride anywhere in the back of a truck or on a donkey. If I want a cheeseburger or ten beers or two key lime pies at 11:30 at night – or 11:30 in the morning for that matter – I want to be able to pick up the phone in the room and make that happen. I don’t demand those things, and it isn’t like I won’t go anywhere without them. I just appreciate them. Maybe because most of the traveling I did when I was young was done without a lot of amenities and comfort, maybe that’s why I appreciate a good bed or room service. But on the flipside of that, if you’re driving somewhere and you just need a bed for 8 hours, a $50 motel room and a vending machine are a welcome sight.

But the best part of traveling, whether you’re into the travel or not, is always coming home, wherever that happens to be. I think travel used to be a little less annoying too. In some ways. Flying anywhere now is like taking a Metro bus, then a train, then another bus and a different train just to get downtown. All the waiting and all the people. When I lived in San Pedro I had this old Isuzu Trooper and the transmission blew up on the thing, so I took Metro trains to get to work in East Pasadena every day for a week or two. Here’s how to get to East Pasadena from the southern tip of Los Angeles, in San Pedro: bus to the blue line in Long Beach (though usually I got Carol to drive me to the train in Long Beach – either way, not terribly convenient). Blue line train – which is the longest train line in Metro, and for much of its run is on city streets, stopping every block for traffic lights like a bus – Blue line to 7th street downtown. Then the Red line train from 7th street over to Union Station. Walk through Union Station to the Gold line. Gold line through South Pasadena, Pasadena, then East Pasadena. Jump off at the station closest to the office, and still have to walk a mile to get to work. I did that every morning and then the reverse every night.

But to me, all of that was still preferable to one plane flight from Burbank to anywhere. And Burbank is a small, easy airport. But there’s no such thing as an easy airport anymore, is there. So I’d rather not travel, and closer to home, I’d rather not go to Griffith Observatory, or the Hollywood Bowl or Disneyland or the Grand Central Market downtown. I’d just rather not. I’d rather not stop at the pet store to buy a bag of food, or at the drug store for a toothbrush or a fingernail brush or a barrel of Advil. I’d just rather not. I like coming home and seeing my girl and our little dog and standing there in the house wondering what the hell. See, I’m going to wonder what the hell no matter where I am, so I’d rather do it in my underpants. I think the world wants you to think that’s unusual, that we should all be out running around and socializing and buying more things, and that that’s what all of your friends are doing, so you better get moving. Better catch up, and don’t forget to Instagram that shit. But I think the reality is you’re probably just like me. Almost everyone is, they just want to go home and be left alone. We all live in the world together and we all have to get along somehow, but really we’d all rather be alone somewhere. Or with one or two people who are close to us.

And I don’t think that’s bad. I know there’s a contingent out there that wants you to think it’s bad. That keeps telling you to get out and see the god damn world, or at least go to the dog park or the movies. But ignore them. They’re usually trying to sell you something, and you can get everything you need on the Internet, so don’t let them bully you. It wasn’t that long ago that people didn’t go anywhere. You had to be rich or join the army if you wanted to go to Europe or Africa or Iceland. I’m not saying that was better. You should see something other than your own yard during your lifetime. So I guess what I’m saying is it’s easier to do that shit when you’re young and don’t know any better. When you go to Paris when you’re 20 years old you think, jesus christ, everything here is magnificent! Then if you wind up there when you’re 50 you just think, these self-appointed superior snail-sniffers are gouging me, get me out of here! Well maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m projecting again. I tend to do that sometimes. Keep it real, brothers and sisters, and come back and see me some time, yeah? Yeah.