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MULLEN

Aristotle once wrote that women have fewer teeth than men. For years, that was held up as proof that one of the smartest men who ever lived was actually an idiot.

"Why," people wonder, "didn't he just look into a woman's mouth?"

OK, let's say he did. How many teeth would he find in your mouth? Most of us start with 32 teeth, but how many do you have right now? If Aristotle counted a few people's teeth today, what would he think? He'd probably think that everyone has a different amount. And he'd wonder what happened to everyone's wisdom teeth. I don't know if it's evolution or what, but our jaws don't seem big enough to contain all our teeth anymore. Maybe the food we eat is much softer than our ancestors' -- or maybe it's simply that we can remove problem teeth almost painlessly now.

Almost painlessly. I had a root canal last week and the procedure was almost painless -- if you don't count the "you'll feel a slight pinch" lidocaine injections and having all three of the dentist's hands in my mouth for, like, two hours. It's much better than having to live with a throbbing toothache, but painless? That's not quite the way I'd describe it.

Of course, the thing that hurt the most was the bill. The kind of skill required to do a root canal does not come cheap, and these days, it seems like I'm getting a root canal or an implant every couple years. Fillings and crowns that I had done 35 years ago are all starting to fall apart, and the repairs, though beautiful, aren't cheap.

I have a dentist friend who lives in another state, Dr. Bob (not his real name. His real name is Larry), who used to teach at a dental school. He said he was walking by a student numbing a patient one day, and he could see the needle sticking out of the patient's neck while he squirted lidocaine all over the floor. He didn't want to yell at the student, afraid the kid might jerk back and make things even worse, so Dr. Bob/Larry said very calmly, "I think you could back off on that syringe a little."

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But as for me, I walked out of my dentist's chair a comfortably numbed man. Funny, I can't taste my chewing gum at all. Oh, right, I don't chew gum -- that was my cheek or my tongue I was chomping on. That's not gonna feel good when this stuff wears off.

For most of us, getting older isn't an event, it's a process. One day you wake up and your foot doesn't work. Food that never used to bother you now has a longer list of "side effects" than the ones you hear for medicines on TV commercials. And none of them pleasant.

Your calendar is full of doctor's appointments. Why can't my foot doctor also tell me what this rash is on my side? Why can't she tell me if this mole looks odd? Why is hair suddenly growing on the back of my thumb? That can't be right. Do I need a separate appointment for that, Doc?

I'm acquiring quite a collection of knee, wrist and elbow braces that are too loose or too tight or too ugly to wear in public. Though I don't know why that stops me; it doesn't seem to bother anyone else in Walmart. Am I trying to pretend I'm still young? I'm certainly not as active as I used to be. I sit at the computer so long I think my butt is getting carpal tunnel syndrome.

The lidocaine is finally wearing off. I know, because I can feel the pain in my cheek. How much of myself did I cannibalize? I'm afraid to look. How much will a cheek implant cost?

Contact Jim Mullen at mullen.jim@gmail.com

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