Monday, November 17, 2008

How to Brush Your Teeth

We had wee bit of money sitting in the bank, earning paltry interest on account of the ever-diminishing benchmark rates, and of course we couldn't invest it - what with the world economy going to hell in a hellcart and all - so we spent long hours debating what to do about it until I came up with (immodest, I know) a brilliant idea: let's give it to my dentist, I said, and proceeded to make the requisite appointment. The negotiations were swift - I wish I could say painless - and the good man agreed to take the savings plus a good chunk of our future earnings, in exchange for the privilege of being let loose in my mouth with drills, hammers and other heavy machinery. Problem solved.

Yes, dear readers, I have bad teeth. I used to blame the weak enamel, for that was the explanation given to me by my first dentist, a chap who must be spending his retirement on a private island with money raised largely through my parents' contributions. Then when I was in the civil service I took a resident of the place where I worked to meet a free hospital dentist who didn't believe in cavities. "Explain," said I. And he: "The tooth decay, it's got nothing to do with bacteria: it's bad alignment in the teeth that leads to faulty chewing, and the irregular vibrations cause the teeth to decay."

I found the theory a little suspect, but either way weak enamel, badly aligned teeth - I was off the hook. Until the other day, that is, when I was due to visit the hygienist at my dental practice. Like all hygienists, she'd obviously attended Stern School, where I'm sure she graduated at the very top of her class. But in spite of her brisk manner, I hereby pledge to always hold this good woman close to my heart, because she told me how to brush my damn teeth. None of her colleagues - and I've met a few in my time - had ever done that. I spent my life thinking I was doing it right. Up and down and left and right and in and out, spending a good amount of time on each area. I remember this American chick in the Colgate ads when I was a child: she did the up and down thing, I swear, and then she bit an apple to show off her powerful and impossibly white incisors. Well, according to my hygienist, YOU SHOULD NEVER BRUSH IN AN UPWARDS AND DOWNWARDS MOTION. Nor left to right or right to left. You're supposed to proceed in circular movements, and brush your gums as well. I never brushed my gums in my entire life. I've been doing it all wrong. I might as well have not bothered. It's quite possible in fact that I made things worse, by shoving tiny particles of food in un-rinseable places.

I'd estimate that I started brushing regularly when I was three and a half. Morning and night, for an average of, say, six minutes per day. I'm now thirty-seven and a half. There are three hundred and sixty five days in a year, twelve thousand four hundred and ten days in thirty-four years, plus eight more on account of the bi-sextiles. Times six, that makes seventy-four thousand five hundred and eight minutes, which is to say twelve hundred-odd hours, which is to say almost fifty-two days. When I die, I want those deducted from my tombstone - they should in no way count as "life".

So, let me ask you, dear readers: am I the only person who wasn't told about this? Did I miss a crucial day at preschool, a visit by the district nurse? Or is this indispensable tip for personal maintenance in fact a half-secret, something that is sporadically passed on by hygienist to blogger when it should in fact be oft-repeated on TV and attached to the phone book and stapled to Gideon bibles to ensure maximum penetration among the populace?

Perhaps I ought to sign up for one of Babette's courses. In Don DeLillo's White Noise, she's the lady who teaches the fundamentals of breathing, in a course so successful that she is soon enlisted to teach another entitled "Eating and Drinking: Basic Parameters". The syllabus, explains Babette,

[is] practically inexhaustible. Eat light foods in warm weather. Drink plenty of liquids... Knowledge changes every day. People like to have their beliefs reinforced. Don't lie down after eating a heavy meal. Don't drink liquor on an empty stomach. If you must swim, wait at least an hour after eating. The world is more complicated for adults than it is for children. We didn't grow up with all these shifting facts and attitudes. One day they just started appearing. So people need to be reassured by someone in a position of authority that a certain way to do something is the right way or the wrong way, at least for the time
being. (p. 163)

In DeLillo's satire of the postmodern condition, it is the din of information the makes people forgetful of the basic rules for taking care of oneself, of life's user manual. It's a culturally induced amnesia whereby the mind's capacity to store information is entirely exhausted by trivia and factoids, leaving the characters gasping for intelligent thought. Another bringing up to date of Plato's lesson? Yes, but consider also the parallels with Leonard's condition in Memento, the erosion of the self caused by the inability to sustain a complex personal narrative, make sense of the world and other people. 'Forgetfulness,' says Jack Gladney in the novel, 'has gotten into the air and water. It's entered the food chain' (p. 52). No longer the individual affliction of Plato's solitary reader, whose learning was desocialised by the technology of the book, or of trauma victim Leonard Shelby, amnesia becomes in DeLillo a social illness, something you can catch and pass on to others.

Feel free at this point to keep metaphorising along the lines of the computer virus, and to wonder whether the Internet is in fact the ideal place to spread such a contagion - a suggestive image that might be worthy of a little pause. I am not drawing that conclusion myself (not yet anyway), nor suggesting that the solution to the problem is to return to earlier ways, more traditional authorities, fewer voices, less technology and a quieter culture. The solution I envisage, the vaccine if you like, consists rather of a more nuanced understanding of the social modes of remembering, greater economy of expression, better cultural and technical tools to navigate information and produce knowledge - in short, a new ecology of memory. It is a recipe that I'll keep repeating and refining, defining, redefining, as I learn to come to terms with the blog-form and its lack of a clear reading path, of premises and conclusions - a text continually written and always approached from its latest page.

But I am conscious that I may not have convinced anybody thus far that there even is a problem, an actual breakdown in the transmission of memory, as opposed to fashionable musings and the complaints of those who fear or resist our current reconfigurations. And fair enough, I'm mostly mapping out an imaginary after all, and the connections to the real world have not been forcefully made, yet.

One thing I can tell you with some confidence, though: you should always use a soft-bristled toothbrush. My hygienist reckons they shouldn't even sell any other kind.

Don DeLillo. White Noise. New York: Viking, 1985.
The Simpsons: You Kent Always Get What You Want (2007).