« The most annoying profile New York magazine has ever published — and that's saying something | Main | Fast food »


Glum, numb, gum

Throughout my long and checkered reproductive career, I've stoically endured some pretty significant pain. The radioactive dye of an HSG sent me scrabbling backwards toward the end of the table, making it necessary for a nurse to hold me by the shoulders lest I make good my frantic escape. The protracted passing of an ectopic mass made me see stars, moons, a quasar or two, and the ghostly smirking specter of Carl Sagan, God damn his turtlenecked soul. And the searing epigastric pain of HELLP made me suspect I was pretty darn close to dying.


Anyway, I'm no stranger to pain, and I tend to cope with it well (if "well" means "biting my tongue clean through into two neat meaty planks while remaining perfectly still and outwardly calm"). This fortitude does not, however, extend to mouth pain. I quail even to think of that pointy dental tool — you know the one, the one the dentist sinks into your gums as she records the depth of the pus-leaking corruption therein.

You know, that pointy thing.

I hate going to the dentist, and I put it off as long as I possibly can. I fall into a funk for days before any appointment, and I always ask that I be given some sort of sedative/anesthetic cocktail before even undergoing the bite-wing X-rays (a perfectly reasonable request that is always summarily refused). But overall, I'm lucky: thanks to heredity and no great interest in sweets, I have good teeth and decent gums. I can generally get away with missing a cleaning or two. Or many, many more than that.

And so it happened that I was at the dentist last week for an introductory visit after quite some time without a checkup. The dentist gave me a tissue to clutch in my sweaty, sweaty palms, mounted a set of goggles on her face that made her look like an giant, angry fly about to deposit a clump of larvae in my mouth, and started in.

As she worked, she asked questions, and I responded as best I could with that pointy thing poised to stab me in the uvula if she didn't like my answers. She almost gaffed my tonsils when I told her about Charlie: she sees Paul very frequently, knows his teeth more intimately than I do, yet did not know we have a son.

That was all the encouragement she needed. She perched near the arm of my chair, staring soulfully into my gullet with her fly goggles, and talked. And talked. And talked. About gum, of all things.

It turns out that those clever Europeans have known for years that if the parents of an infant chew gum containing the sweetener xylitol starting when the baby is six months of age, that infant is then at significantly reduced risk for tooth decay. How does it work? Well, xylitol apparently neutralizes the oral bacteria that cause tooth decay, keeping a mother from transmitting them via big, wet slobbery tongue kisses — yes, I do, and what of it? — and preventing her baby's mouth from getting colonized by cariogenic bacteria.

This salutary effect persists for at least six years past the, ah, therapeutic gum-chewing window.

I told my mother about this after my appointment, pausing in my enthusiastic chewing only long enough to get the words out intelligibly, spraying minty fresh saliva all over the telephone receiver, and she scoffed. "Suuuure it works. And did she also offer to sell you a bridge?"

What can I say? I believe our dentist, and I believe the studies, and I believe I'll have another stick of gum, thanks.

That said, I'm pretty sure when it comes to her diagnosis concerning my wisdom teeth, she's a goddamn fly-faced uvula-spearing larva-leaving liar.