The Reluctant Townie | The dark side of the tooth crater

The Reluctant Townie | The dark side of the tooth crater

Nothing says "Welcome to middle age" quite like dental surgery.

I will be 35 at the end of this month. That numerical milestone feels definitively middle-aged, as there is no credible argument to be made that I am one of the youth, and anyway I stopped approaching my birthdays in a state of existential panic around the time I turned 30, because, well — who cares?

Even so, I will ring in my 35th year missing one of my teeth, as the process of implanting a new tooth takes several months. I guess I should give my molar (#2 on the dental chart, but #1 in my heart) props for making it this far in our journey. We lived wild and carefree — chewing ice cubes and clowning on dental floss like tomorrow would never come. My molar had a good run, even if it proved to be less of an Aragorn and more of a Boromir on this quest.

Had I been born a century or two earlier, this tooth would likely have been replaced long ago with something my teenage bride whittled out of a church pew, so I try to have perspective.

As it turns out, there's plenty of time to think about life, the universe and everything while you're having dental surgery, as there's not much else to do. It's not as if you're engaging the two masked individuals bent over your spotlit, gaping maw in time-killing banter. Your only other option is to give into the lite rock station playing overhead, which is easily the most painful part of any dental procedure.

(Upon realizing this, a flood of relief washes over me. Yes, I may be middle aged, but not so middle aged that my ears crave Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie" played into Uncle Kracker's "Follow Me." I'm not that dead inside yet.)

Using breathing techniques and meditation, I was able to drown out the whine of the dental drill and the internally-amplified cracking of my upper back molar, and tried not to picture the dentist ripping each individual root from its socket.

I didn't feel anxious before the surgery. I've never feared the dentist — whatever inherent apprehension I may have harbored as a child was, literally, hammered out of me during trips to the orthodontist during adolescence.

(In fact, I think society has it backward — the field of orthodontics is far more sadistic than dentistry. Dentists see you every few years to clean your teeth and maybe drill a tiny hole and then give you a sugar-free lollipop. Orthodontists, by contrast, see you on a regular basis for years, to methodically tighten metal wires cemented to your teeth, and hammer brackets into your tender, bleeding gum line.)

So how did I end up with a need for dental surgery in the first place? I fractured my tooth. And not just some tiny, little everyday fracture, I cracked it down the middle of the molar like a walnut.

How does one crack one's molar like a walnut? I'd like to say it was something impressive and macho, like winning the Stanley Cup single-handedly or getting kicked in the face by a horse during a bar fight, but the truth is far less awe-inspiring. I was betrayed by one of my closest allies: Premium, thick-cut bacon.

Impossible, you say! And you are right to be suspicious of my claim. How can such a delicious, savory, harmless, uplifting, mouth-watering friend to mankind crack the tooth of a middle aged man who drank milk by the gallons as a youth?

Because I never saw it coming.

It started last year, with a toothache so bad I collapsed while riding my bicycle and nearly blacked out from the pain. The pain had been growing for weeks. Any sensation whatsoever — a light breeze, a cold drink of water, a hot coffee, a room temperature juice box — would send the right side of my face into a half hour crescendo of throbbing, radiating pain.

A trip to the dentist revealed my need for a root canal, as the result of a deep cavity that had exposed a nerve. My roots were drilled out and killed, the pain was vanquished. After the procedure, the dentist told me to schedule a time to come back for the build up and then the crown.

"The buildup and then the crown? This costs extra?"

Yes, they said. Another grand or so. Perhaps they had told me earlier, but the nerve pain had been commanding my attention.

"Lemme get back to you," I said, backing slowly out of the reception area, and then proceeded to ignore the dentist's calls to my cell in the days, weeks and months that followed. With the pain gone, I felt empowered to procrastinate and feel good about saving money in the process.

I would sit for the build up and the crown... eventually.

My molar had been hollowed out and filed down. The tooth felt weird, and not a 100 percent functional — there was a shallow crater on the chewing surface that I obsessively ran my tongue over a few hundred dozen times a day — but it was 85 to 90 percent functional, which I rounds up to an A-.

Things were fine for almost a year. Which is why I didn't think twice about ravaging a slice of extra crispy premium, thick-cut bacon I had just pulled out of the frying pan a month ago.

I am not sure I will ever be able to forget, on a molecular level, the sensation of biting down on a scrumptious piece of bacon I was anticipating with every ounce of my soul, and being instead confronted with the sound and sensation of my upper molar being split in two like an axe to a log of firewood.

(If you are still unclear on the physics of what happened, a particularly hard piece of bacon gristle lodged itself with terrible precision in the small crater of the root-canal, which was then leveraged with the full, unbridled force of an enthusiastic bacon bite.)

While the split molar didn't cause much pain — on account of the nerves that had been eliminated during the root canal — it was decidedly less functional than the 85 to 90 percent of its previous state.

All of this has left my examining some philosophical questions, such as, what is the numerical worth of a human tooth? Have you thought about how much your teeth are worth to you?

Because I guarantee your dentist has.

Ryan Jackson wrote this under the influence of Z-Pak and ibuprofen, and he can be reached at

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Topics (2):Health Care, People