Monday, April 11, 2011

On Eating... (Before)

I've been told for years that I "eat slow." Almost as annoying as "Stop scowling...your face will freeze that way," and "Smile!" as a kid. ( Well, guess what, my face DID in a sense, "freeze" like that. The tension I created in my face and body to construct myself into a perpetually tight-lipped, monotone, mumbling person for years, sleepless and cynical, I know is responsible for this wrinkle in my brow I have been trying hard to get rid of over the past year. I honestly, have seen a lot of progress. I am not sure how many of you remember or even notice, but my face used to be different:
Taking a break from stenciling in my hot little studio at the Firehouse, 2007
In the Firehouse backyard/stage area.
Being asked about smiling or why you eat slow with the teeth that I have had for years is like feeling overweight and trying to squeeze into that one pair of pants you used to love that no longer fit. But at least with some body image issues like that, fixing at least the physical aspect of them can be attained free, with exercise. If I could have jogged for teeth, I would have. In a way, I guess I kind of rode a bicycle down the coast for the mental health necessary to finally change my teeth. But even now that I've taken so many of the first steps and come so far, it is far from free. I always felt bitter in that way when other people discussed their issues with me, because I felt so powerless monetarily to change mine, so it never even seemed worth talking about with anyone. It was a matter of class. How do you explain what it's like to a person whose middle class parents bought them braces, who is self conscious cuz they still ended up with a crooked tooth or something what it's like to not even have teeth to attach braces TO? Most of the conversations of teeth I recall in my life with friends were always about how straight or white they were, not how broken they were, not how hard they made it to eat on a daily basis at every meal I shared with them.

Yes, I eat slow. Over the past 13 years or so, this has been why:
In 1998 I broke my first front tooth, #10, while eating a toasted sandwich in the dining hall sophomore year of college at SUNY Oswego, where I got my BFA. I had been fearful of that happening for a few years, never actually knowing how strong my teeth were. The weird part was, it didn't actually fall out, but was still hanging by its insides. (Rakhee, correct me--is it the dentin, or pulp? I can only learn so much from google! I should make you my editor! First student to read this and give me the right answer wins a prize!) Over the next several weeks, it hung on, occasionally popping forward awkwardly toward my lip if I caught it on something while chewing, and I would always secretly try to push it back, until eventually the whole lower portion of it broke off, similar to how #8 in the front in my early pictures on here looks.

I already ate slower than most at that time from molars with broken crowns, all no doubt long overdue for fillings since I was a teenager, but that was different. While it most certainly hurt to eat (OR brush even if I had wanted to) using all those molars with broken crowns where inflamed gums were slowly growing over them, at least there was never a risk of anyone really seeing those teeth, so I basically brainwashed myself over the years not to care, not to have hope, taking Tylenol in pain and silence. I basically just did the best I could with the mouth that I had, like it was a handicap and I had to learn to just "suck it up," like there was no end ever in sight. My front teeth up until that point had seemed to for whatever reason decay much slower than my back ones, so I basically just crossed my fingers and always thought I would somehow get lucky--win the lottery or something, move to NY and become a famous artist overnight, invent some clever thing that made me rich, write a book, etc., and somehow afford magic new Hollywood teeth. Now however, I got really paranoid of eating a lot of things, feeling like the leverage of tearing off a piece of pizza with my teeth, eating big sandwiches or things like apples and carrots would break off more of my other front teeth, cavities slowly creeping in on the sides fo all of them. My second front tooth held on til I was 24 or so. I honestly don't even know when my top premolars snuck away from me in the night and don't think I was really conscious of how little of them was left, now hiding beneath my gums until Rakhee took a series of awkwardly invasive though comical to me, paparrazzi-like photos during my third appointment, complete with mirrors and mouth-speculum-like contraptions, but the loss of each tooth only continued to make eating more difficult.

.I mentioned my solidarity experiment before, where I asked Pinar to count how many times it took to chew a comparably-sized Kettle Chip, the answer being something like eight times more chewing for me. Try to imagine what it is like to do the majority of all your chewing in one section of your mouth with two to three teeth, of what it would be like to split wood with a chisel instead of an axe, and you will have a good idea of what the daily chore of eating for me has been like for years. No, it wasn't always like this--last year I probably was chewing on the other side. It would always fluctuate. Something new would break, new sensitive flesh would grow over the edges of teeth where broken crowns used to be. I learned to chew with my tongue a lot, bananas especially, when I wasn't manipulating my food to that one perfect spot in my mouth I could still reduce it to smaller pieces. I learned to do a lot of my chewing with my hands, tearing things like bagels and toast into smaller pieces before I put them into my mouth, doing the job my front teeth no longer could. I used my fork to chop seitan and broccoli on my plate. I gave up on carrots and the hearts of bok choy in stir frys practically altogether. I would often ask restaurants to cook vegetables extra, which often then made my tofu overcooked and impossible to chew. There always seemed to be a trade-off or compromise. Eating out with friends was already a pain in the ass being vegan for years, but add to that the fact that I couldn't chew hard things or tear leafy things or really eat pastas if they weren't overcooked and every meal for me was often hell. Not only would it always appear that I ate slow, I ate SO slow in fact that when everyone else was finished I was only getting started, always taking half of my meal home. (I also like to talk a lot, which doesn't exactly make eating go any faster.)

I couldn't really eat salads because it was hard to tear apart greens, kale especially, though it was one of my favorites. And how upsetting it always was to have people ask me if they had stuff in their teeth! I always felt like if they had asked me that question, I would have said, "Uhm, yeah...mine are FULL." It seemed like there was always a seed or something hiding in a cavity somewhere that would drive my curious tongue crazy trying to coerce it out, usually rubbing up against sensitive spots that only made me feel like more of an obessed masocist or something. I was, after all, most always in pain. It just seemed to become bearable over the years. When people complained of their own toothaches, it always felt like suddenly there was this ONE "competition" between the two of us, that I was always winning. "Oh, poor baby, with your one little toothache. Big deal! Stop whining! You don't hear ME complaining, do you?" If only...just once...I did. If maybe I could have used those experiences to bring us together, instead of feeling so much further apart. "What if? What if..."

I often would cough during meals, trying to rush, never really chewing my food efficiently enough to swallow it and would often get little pieces of seeds and nuts and spices stuck in the back of my throat. Similarly, I always had to drink lots of coffee with my breakfast bagels and toast to soften them up and wash them down. I gave up on eating popcorn kernels years ago, though as a kid crunching on them was one of my favorite parts about popcorn. I fondly recall my family always sharing and cracking large bowls of mixed nuts during the holidays for weeks, though most nuts and sunflower seeds have also been a thing of the past unless in butter form for years as well. No more big pretzels, no little hard white bready parts in Chex Mix. No gum chewing, or crunching on hard candy canes or lollipops. Jawbreakers literally became teethbreakers. No more stuffing my mouth with a whole mini bag of chips like I used to gorge them down in High School like I was trying to set a world record. No painful ice water on sensitive nerves everywhere. Basically no more raw vegetables at all, with the exception of perhaps tomatoes. On the bike tour, I picked up the habit of eating with a titanium spork from REI that I used to often "chew" foods for me. (Endearing Sidenote: During one of my early appointments, while talking about titanium implants, I remarked that the spork on my hip was made of titanium to which Rakhee took a step back, crossed her arms and got into her "Authoritative Doctor Stance" and yelled, "If I put implants in your mouth you are NOT eating with that thing! You better be washing it!" or something to that effect. I still really want a picture of that pose and serious face to hang on my bathroom mirror to remind me to brush and floss whenever I am in there.)

As you can see, I have been forced to abandon many of my favorite foods over the years, or modify their textures or the way that I eat them. I write this entry, however, as perspective and clarity of my PAST. My diet is in the middle of another ongoing confusing transition (after I already stepped out of veganism last spring after nearly eleven years, and then ate everything in sight while biking down the coast to sustain my energy level to power a fully-loaded hundred pound bike up and down the epic hills of the Pacific coast for four hours a day. I intend to write more of this current stage of pudding and smoothies soon, and discuss the difference between eating with the shards of sixteen broken teeth, and eating as they are being extracted as gums are healing through my seemingly endless procedures. Thanks, as always, for listening. If you got any good smoothie or "soft" vegetarian recipes, feel free to send 'em my way!


  1. I love this smoothie:
    Big blob of plain yogurt
    Half an apple, cored/sliced, or half a peach
    Half a banana
    1 T maple syrup
    1/2 t cinammon
    some ice cubes
    Put in a blender and whirr the hell out of it. Pour in a frosty glass. Mmmm.

  2. Thank you! I will try it after I get my next batch of teeth out soon and go back to babyfood for a while :-)