THE BLOG
12/13/2013 02:44 pm ET | Updated Feb 10, 2014

What Did I Do to Deserve These Cavities? (Or: the Sociology of Dentistry)

Dentists aren't real doctors. That's not an insult. That doesn't mean dentists aren't important. But doctors deal with the health and care of body parts. And, when defining "body parts", I draw the line at teeth. Teeth are in the same category as hair and fingernails. And nobody thinks manicurists are real doctors.

Dental schools don't accept just anyone. I mean, I assume you need decent college grades. Hence, the kinds of people who choose to attend dental school have other career options. And yet they choose dentistry. That's interesting to me. At what age do you decide to dedicate your life to looking at teeth? You'll never hear a young child say, "When I'm a grown-up, I wanna be an astronaut, a fireman, or perform root canals."

I suspect the decision to become a dentist is less of an "Aha!" moment than a "well, whatever, I guess I'll do this now" moment. Sort of like making the choice to start a family.

In the animated Christmas classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Hermey the Elf wants to quit making toys in order to pursue his dream of dentristy. The other elves find this choice- to become a dentist- so absurd and abhorrent, that Hermey is essentially forced out of the North Pole. The show's producers must've figured, "Yeah, audiences can relate to that."

(Later in the story, Hermey defeats Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster by pulling out all his teeth. It's a pretty sick and sadistic act. Yet, it's no less offensive than exiling misfit toys to a secluded island or excluding Rudolph for having a physical deformity.)

On Seinfeld, there was an episode where Jerry is accused of being an "anti-dentite", prejudiced against dentists. In the episode, the dentist is played by Bryan Cranston, who later went on to star as a meth dealer in Breaking Bad. So Cranston's acting career went from fixing teeth to rotting them.

I don't think anyone actually dislikes dentists, though. Society understands the need for dentistry; Americans have a Constitutional right to chew. But many people don't like going to the dentist.

The idea of masked strangers jabbing sharp metal tools into your mouth can be very frightening. But hey -- that's marriage!

But getting back to dentistry...

I don't mind going to the dentist. There are things far more disturbing to me than sitting in a dentist's chair... like watching any Eddie Murphy movie made after 1990. Shudder!

My dentist is a nice man. And I think he knows what he's doing. Actually, I have no idea if he knows what he is doing. But my teeth are still more or less in tact, so he must be doing something right. Actually, when I'm at the dentist's office, I spend most of my time with the dental hygienist. She does most of the work -- all the scraping and polishing and cleaning. And then the dentist comes in for a minute or two and confirms everything. He must've learned how to do that in dental school. During my last teeth cleaning session, the dentist literally could've been a hologram, and it wouldn't have affected the appointment.

My dental hygienist is a sweet lady. I've noticed that people will say "my dentist", but they'll say "the hygienist." My dentist refers to "his patients", but he also says "my hygienist." Nevertheless, I refer to both dentist and hygienist with a "my." I like to think that we all own each other equally.

I'm using the pronouns he and she as they relate to my personal situation. It so happens that my dentist is a man. And my dental hygienist is a woman. I'm not sexist. I wouldn't hesitate to go to a female dentist. In fact, a couple of things trouble me about my male dentist; he never asks for directions and I wish he would express his emotions more openly.

While cleaning my teeth, my hygienist often makes friendly conversation. She asks me about my job, etc. Of course, I can't really answer her because I have metal tools on my tongue and I'm trying to keep the excess saliva in my mouth from escaping down my cheek. So I respond to her questions with a subtle nod or a grunt. It's an efficient method of communication. I hope Apple doesn't ruin it, as it did with all other forms of communication.

Both my dentist and hygienist know to be careful around certain spots in my mouth. Specifically, my front teeth, and a few in the back, are very sensitive. Hence, my dental team knows not to say anything that might hurt feelings.

They recommend that you see your dentist twice a year. Of course, they also recommended that Sandra Bullock movie where she adopts the high school football player. Is it just me or was that like a bad after-school special? Do you really need to see a dentist twice a year? It seems like overkill.

Nevertheless, I see my dentist twice a year. It's convenient for me. I have good dental insurance. Plus, it takes me seven minutes to walk to the office. But more than that, I go twice a year because they give me a free toothbrush after each appointment. There's something weirdly exciting about getting the free toothbrush. What color will it be? Will it be the same brand as last time? It's like the anticipation of going to meet a blind date... only if you're unhappy with the new toothbrush, you don't feel obligated to accept its Facebook friend request the next day.

My dentist only gives out "soft" bristle toothbrushes. Dentists will always tell you to use a soft brush. It makes you wonder why they make hard bristle toothbrushes in the first place. Some people just want to defy authority, I suppose. Personally, I'll stick with the soft toothbrushes. However, to feed my rebellious side, I use a #3 pencil.

I didn't like my previous dentist. One, he never learned my name. You're sticking your hands down someone's throat; learn their name. (That's a general etiquette rule; it's not just for dentists.) Two, the enamel on one of my teeth was corroding. My dentist told me it was my fault. He said I brushed too hard. He said I've probably been using a hard toothbrush. I said, "No I'm not. I only use a soft brush, just like you told me." Then I asked, "So are you going to fix my tooth?" He responded, "Just brush your teeth softer. Try switching hands." Instead, I switched dentists. I expect my dentist to fix my teeth. If I want bad advice, I'll watch Dr. Drew.

I used to have a dentist who collected old dental equipment. In the waiting room of his offices, he displayed rusty, nightmarish dental clamps and drills from the 1800s. I think it was an attempt at irony. A dental appointment, for many people, is a physically and emotionally unpleasant experience. It's probably best not to jokingly remind people of their fears... especially when modern, state-of-the-art dental tools look more or less the same as they used to, only now they're shinier.

The most ridiculous piece of dental equipment is dental floss. It's string! During my regular dental check-ups, they floss my teeth. Does the hygienist know that I can do this myself? Hey, while you're at it, would you mind tying my shoe?

Every night, before bed, I cut off a piece of string and stick it between the spaces of my teeth. Sometimes I get the feeling this is all one big practical joke perpetrated on us by dentists. "Hey, Stu, do you think these idiots are ever gonna figure out that there is no medical value to sticking string between the spaces of their teeth?"

One time, I was talking about flossing and my friends started laughing at me. They don't floss their teeth. I had always thought that everyone flossed before bed. But it turns out they don't. Julia Roberts used dental floss during a cute scene in her star-making film Pretty Woman. So at least I know I'm not the only person who flosses; Hollywood prostitutes do, too.

Sometimes I see people with very bad teeth, or no teeth at all. These people probably never go to the dentist. I've heard cruel jokes about people with bad teeth, as if somehow they just don't care about their dental health. But nobody wants bad teeth. We need teeth to eat properly and to talk properly. Teeth have a big effect on our physical appearance, which has a big effect on our lives. And tooth pain is excruciating. I'm sure these people want to go to the dentist, but they simply can't afford it. We live in a rich country. I'm sure the government can find a way to provide dental care for everyone. Maybe Senator Ted Cruz has a plan.

Fancy dentists have longer titles, like "orthodontist" or "periodontist." Shouldn't the word be "orthodentist?" That would make more sense. Eh, whatever. They're all just dentists. Fancy dentists specialize in one aspect of dentistry. For example, I did a little research and learned that endodontists specialize in cracked teeth. But this is silly because dentists already have a specialty- teeth. I mean, isn't that specific enough? Where does it stop? "When I grow up, I want to be a lyftincisorthodontist, I want to specialize in overbites of the left incisor tooth."

Of course, I'm not a dental expert. So if you have any further questions about dentistry, don't ask me. Instead, call your dentist. If he (or she!) is not in his office, don't worry about it. Just call him at home. I'm sure he won't mind.

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