Propped up in the dentist's chair a couple weeks ago as he began chopping and sawing away at a couple of my back teeth, my mental calculator, as it's wont to do, began adding up the total cost of all the work that was being undertaken. When I reached the end of my sums and realized that the price of my new and/or improved teeth was only slightly less than my parents paid for their two-bedroom house back in 1951, I came close to jumping out of my seat and tearing down the street with the various accoutrements of the dentist's trade trailing behind me.
I may have mentioned it here at one time or another, but in case you weren't aware, I've been missing an upper right molar, tooth #3 in dental parlance, for some 36 years, ever since it split in half as I bit into a piece of especially rough hippie bread in April of 1972. At the time I barely had enough money to have the remains of the broken tooth excavated and the fissure left behind sewn up, so I never gave much thought to how or if it should be replaced. After all, I still had plenty of other teeth, so how much difference could one missing one make?
Well, quite a bit, as it happened. Oh, it was no big problem to accustom myself to chewing with other parts of my mouth, to the point where for a long time I barely even remembered that one blank spot was there. But unbeknown to me, stuff was happening in there: without the missing molar to hold them in place, other teeth started drifting, leaving gaps that trapped bits of food and became a happy breeding ground for tooth decay-causing bacteria. Eventually both of my back teeth reached the end of their useful lives and had to be capped and in one case root canaled, and, recognizing that I was going to continue to have problems until the missing tooth was replaced, I was faced with choosing between a temporary fix (good for 10-20 years, but still...) that would involve destroying part of a good tooth and would cost about three grand, or a permanent implant that would cost even more.
It was going over these numbers that caused me so much disquiet: what, I wondered, if I invested all this money in my teeth only to walk out of the dentist's office and in front of a truck? At my age, I wondered, could I be sure that I'd get enough usage out of my new teeth to justify the expenditure?
It didn't take too long - no more than a couple minutes, at any rate - for the countervailing proposition to assert itself: while it might seem like a waste of money to get my teeth fixed and then die shortly thereafter, the money I'd save by not getting them fixed would be of little use since I'd be, as it were, dead. For some reason I found this hilarious enough that I almost burst out laughing at a most inopportune moment, and then in an effort to restrain myself, nearly bit down on the hammer and chisel the dentist was using to rearrange or disassemble my pearly whites (actually, do they make yellow pearls? because that would be a more accurate metaphor).
Having had this realization, I came away feeling a bit more light-hearted, but still not free from worry. What if, for example, I lived another 40 years, i.e., getting full use of my new teeth, but because of the money I'd spent on them, had to go without eating for the last year or two? A lot of good my top-of-the-line teeth would do me then! Apparently I'm not the only one with worries like this: my mother, who's nearly 90 and has enough savings and pension benefits to live comfortably until she's at least 120, still agonizes about spending $59 on a new coat (she lives near San Francisco, where you need a coat, even in June, even, sometimes, when you stay indoors).
No matter how many times I add up her assets for her and point out that unless she were to take up gambling or cocaine it would be almost impossible to run out of money before she dies, she continues to worry, and now I catch myself doing the same thing. It's bizarre: apart from a brief stint of homelessness and dire poverty in my late teens/early 20s, I've always had a place to live, food to eat, and more often than not, a few luxuries as well, but let me go more than a few weeks without earning any money and I'm right back to being convinced - as I was during most of my adolescence and early adulthood - that I'll never be able to support myself, that I have absolutely no marketable skills, that there's no point even in applying for a job because nobody would ever want me working for them.
Well, the latter part might be true: apart from a few years on the assembly line and in the steel mills, I never have worked for anyone other than myself, leaving me rather lacking in items to put on my nonexistent résumé. It's true; apart from a mock résumé that I had to do as part of a class in high school, I've never written or had one. To some, this might appear as one of life's minor victories, and for a long time I saw it that way, too, but of late I've been feeling as though I'd like to be a little more, oh, I don't know, normal?
A bit late for that now, you say? I fear you're right, and barring anyone else being willing to take responsibility for my career and/or creative life, I suppose I'm stuck with it. No, I still have no idea what I can or ought to be doing with myself, which, with occasional brief exceptions, has been my default position since I was about 16, but at least (provided I can come up with enough cash to pay the remainder of the bill) I'll be facing the future with a snappy set of teeth. Never again will anybody guess that I used to live in England.