03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Secret Lives Of Dentists

I was informed this week that a local church here in Berryville, Arkansas--which back home in Minnesota is considered a cult--is widely considered to be the "elite" church in town. Elite was defined by my informant in the usual ways, but also included the phrase "upwardly mobile."

I was so surprised by the linking of this group to the words "elite" and "upwardly mobile" that stuff came out of my nose the way it does when reason is abruptly derailed and you are made helpless by an involuntary and spontaneous eruption of laughter.

However: the source of the information, and of the associated characterizations of the group in question, is a reliable source insofar as matters of church and church politics are concerned. Moreover, I'm admittedly a bit of a dunce when it comes to Protestantism in general and to Southern Protestantism in particular. And so it was that, after weighing these two facts, I was able to convince myself to take the absurdity of "elite" at face value.

I still, however, was unable to get my head around "upwardly mobile" since there is no obvious "up" in Berryville. Here "mobile" is invariably associated with either "home" or Razorback linebackers--in which case it is pronounced mo-Bile--and there aren't any Mobile filling stations left. So how does one become upwardly mobile in such circumstances, especially when there is no upward there?

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of millionaires in town, and plenty of Ph.D.'s, but the money is either old money or retired money and the Ph.D.'s are retired imports or this week's Superintendent of Schools. When a kid leaves town to go off to college he doesn't come back unless his dad owns the local bank. Mobility is therefore out of town, sideways and horizontal, and if it is ever upward it is defined so by parental anecdote; we don't really get to observe it firsthand.

One sure sign of whether one is elite or not elite is the condition of one's teeth. So sensitive are Arkansans over media depiction of them as hillbillies of the Al Capp variety that they forego many luxuries and some necessities to negate the canard and subsequently acquire the sort of teeth common to Hollywood, California. Truly, the streets of my town are so filled with folks with Elvis Presley and Ann Margaret smiles that you might think that you're on the set of Viva Las Vegas. Yes: we have some fine teeth in Arkansas.

If you do see a dental backslider the culprit is usually a retiree from Minnesota. Although Minnesota is rated as the most literate place in the United States (number one on at least four different scales), most Minnesotans have a stoic "ashes to ashes and dust to dust" view of their teeth. Sure, they brush twice daily, floss, and visit the dentist at least annually, but they do these things because those are the rules, and Minnesotans follow rules. But it is hard for them to go beyond the rules to consider big investments in crowns or implants or such cosmetic folderol...because they believe in their heart that when a thing is gone, it's gone.

Minnesotans might invest more in their teeth if dentists heroically appeared once in a while in the bales of that stuff that they read. But they hardly appear at all; it almost seems as though dentists are blacklisted from holding even part-time jobs in literature. In fact, I can recall only a couple of stories involving dentists. One is Ann Hornaday's story, "Secret Lives: The Aching Cavity of a Marriage," and the other is Lisa Schwarzbaum's "The Secret Lives of Dentists: A polished and artful examination of marital decay." Not really inspiring titles, are they? And what's with this '"secrets" business?

If Minnesotans and Arkansans are opposites in the matter of teeth they are also opposites when it comes to reading. With the exception of Mississippi--of course!--Arkansans read less than anyone in America. That may partly answer the "upward mobility" riddle I'm trying to muddle through, but it fails to satisfactorily engage "elite."

And so it is that on the very next available Sunday I plan on attending services at the church in question and meet the elite. I want to assess their upward mobility and, most of all, check out their teeth. I'll let you know how it goes.

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