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Wednesday, May 24, 2000

I think I've forgotten how to smile.

For the last seventeen years — that's a third of my life — my front teeth have had the texture of a moonscape. Uneven, cratered, forbidding. My old dentist had filled some cavities but matched the color poorly, leaving me with a mottled appearance that has discouraged me from exposing those teeth.

Seventeen years ago I was scheduled to have the problem corrected, but I had to cancel that appointment because I had an emergency appendectomy. It took me until this spring, and it took an intensely painful wisdom tooth, to get me back into a dentist's chair.

During those seventeen years I've developed the habit of smiling with my mouth closed, or partially closed. Or not smiling at all. So when Dr. G told me this morning that he was about to give me my smile back, my reaction was that I didn't know what to do with it. I'll have to work on the facial muscles, because I'm sure a normal smile doesn't use the same muscles used to pull your upper lip down over your front teeth.

creepy attempt at a smileBut I'll also have to work on the smile reflex itself. When you smile the way I've grown used to, with your mouth mostly closed, it looks more bemused and sardonic than genuinely joyful and ecstatic. I'm not sure I know how to flash a natural smile that won't creep people out. I'll have to practice at home on my own before I show it off in public. Alas, what it usually takes to make me smile isn't something I find when I'm home alone. It's lucky for me that the people who bring a smile to my face are the same ones who don't judge me on anything quite so superficial. (Not that they'll cut me any slack if they find me in the awkward situation of practicing smiling as if I'm working on a skill that'll win me an Olympic medal, or maybe an Oscar.)

My self-image has never been tied to my physical appearance. If it had, I would have been more conscious of my height. I only know how short I am when someone brings it up, and not many people I associate with care about it. They're all taller than me, so why should they worry about height questions?

No, it's my social awkwardness and paralyzing shyness that define me in my own mind. I look in the mirror and see behind the corporeal shell and attendant attributes. I see someone who stumbles in conversation and cowers behind the door.

At first, I doubted that the minor cosmetic improvement Dr. G did on me today would have much of an impact on my life. But then I thought more about it, and I decided that any excuse to work on correcting my personality defects is worth pursuing. So I'm going to make a point of presenting myself with more confidence, whether I feel it or not. There's always a better chance that good things will happen if I start from a positive stance. There's no chance it will happen if I don't make an effort.

I'd gone to the dentist today thinking he was going to pull a wisdom tooth. I was prepared for two or three days of pain. I stocked up on pudding and yogurt and soup, along with every kind of generic pain reliever available.

When Dr. G didn't mention the wisdom tooth but just stuck his hand in my mouth and started working, I didn't mind. Not that I had a chance to tell him, but the wisdom tooth hasn't bothered me, and the discoloration of my front teeth has been affecting me for seventeen years. He obviously thought that was the most important area to repair.

Oh, I was a little disappointed about not getting to the payoff. I was ready to indulge myself in my own suffering. It's been two months since the last time, and the memory has faded enough to give it a nostalgic glow. Lying around for a couple of days didn't sound bad at all. It's a bit of a letdown that I actually had to work all afternoon, because I had no excuse not to.

The only concern I have now is steeling myself to endure the inevitable extraction at some future time. I lost some sleep last night worrying about it, and I'll no doubt spend some energy fretting before my next appointment.

But at least I'll be smiling broadly between now and then.

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