At a family reunion dinner, my great grandfather–a man who was, to me, as noble as a silverback gorilla–ground his molars mercilessly. Our relationship at the time was such that he would occasionally drop tidbits of age-old wisdom on me, and I would not let on that my pockets were stuffed full of colorful summer beetles that I had collected from his garden. It’s fair to say that we weren’t exactly on the same wavelength. But as inscrutable as the old man was, when it came down to such basics as the feeding process, any mystique he’d cultivated just went out the window. Whether he was processing steak gristle or apple sauce, I endured the sound of rhythmic pulverization for the length of the dinner. It seemed impossible that this had been going on for eight decades. No, more likely he had simply reached a point where he knew just how long he needed to last, so why not use it up? To end on zero, there’s nobility in that, surely.
In response, I decided on the spot never again to allow my teeth to touch. My reaction might sound extreme, and I would agree that some lifelong habits can only take root during childhood’s idealism. But the mere thought of enamel on enamel was so offensive that I spent the rest of that day slack-jawed, for which I paid dearly when I failed to heed the portrait photographer’s increasingly vehement pleas.
Gradually, my ability to avoid closing my jaw became second-nature, and it was undetectable to the outside world. A strategic, if unnatural, placement of tongue provided cushion enough to ensure that enamel never touched enamel, and my resolve to this end became an obsession, not to mention a source of vanity. I could smile without raising undue attention, and took great pride when people complimented my extraordinarily intact teeth. I was not shy about brandishing them. Soon after my 25th birthday a friend remarked, “You still have those darling little bumps on the tops of your incisors, like they just came in.”
If there was a price for perfect teeth, it was in the denial in the satisfaction of a solid bite, which I experienced only in reverie. At night I would dream about grinding my molars against each other, and the pain of it was sweet. The clenching pressure was so great that my teeth would squeak like styrofoam, and fracture lines would creep over their contours until they splintered, until gum pressed against gum. Often I would awaken in a panic, though probing never revealed anything more serious than a bloody tongue.
My teeth are worthy of remark not because they’ve changed, but because they’re exactly the same as they were when they first thrust themselves through my gums. Thus, it’s not change in itself that is remarkable, but some measure of contrast between perception and expectation. It’s fair to say that I have some concerns about my teeth, but to illustrate why this is specifically, I need to tell you another story.
When he was young, my uncle was always the good guy. It was all in his eyes, the casting directors said. With typical hyperbole, a film industry rag once remarked that my uncle’s eyes were “depthless wells of benevolence.” It was no wonder that he had a reputation as a heart-breaker. Men and women both were drawn to his gaze, and he was hardly equipped to master his own naive desires amidst the onslaught. His was the face of an everyman, but in his steady gaze there was a clarity that read on the screen as empathetic. To be sure, this was purely a matter of architecture, and said nothing of the man’s talent. His face was the universal embodiment of kindness, wrought of flesh and bone, and the immediacy of that was marketable. As an actor he wasn’t lead material, but when the casting call went out for a kind or sympathetic supporting role, the job, more often than not, went to him. He played silent angels in four 1953 feature films alone.
My uncle’s approachable look served him well in other parts of life too, as strangers would often approach him in stores or out on the street for help or advice, to pass the time with friendly chat, or to flirt. He took great joy in this, and the attention provided a feedback loop that only made him more beneficent.
Time, however, was not kind to my uncle’s face. By his mid-forties his career had taken a curious turn. The fatty tissue around his eyes had shrunken, and skin thinned. The same eyes that once held viewers rapt were now bracketed by deep wells of flesh, lending them an intensity deemed inappropriate for a protagonist. Like a young Henry Silva, or Ben Cross, his formerly sympathetic visage was now betrayed by eyes that conveyed sinister obsession. Maybe he had smiled too much, but no one could deny the end result. And so, after nearly a decade of transitional floundering, my uncle began the second half of his career as the heavy.
No one was better suited to play a thug: the familiar face, followed by the immediate mistrust. And while experience had in fact made him a better actor, the nature of his work had changed for good. He had to embrace the characters he was allowed to play: the corrupt barrister, the drug-driven mafia boss, the stone-hearted serial killer. Concordantly, grocery store patrons started avoiding him, and the tabloids interest in him began to take an adversarial turn.
By the end of his career he had the resume to make any character actor proud. But there was a joy, both professional and personal, that for him had long since faded. He was prone to long spells of brooding in his later years, and that only deepened the lines of his face. When he died he was the embodiment of deep disappointment, a self-sculpture of bitterness that the mortician was unable to mold into anything less than a mild scowl.
To understand this dynamic is to understand the nature of change, and so this particular story relates, after a fashion, to my own. My teeth are worthy of celebration now, but 30 years hence? There is an unspoken expectation that teeth will have worn to uniform nubs by middle age. That’s the kind of change noticed only when it doesn’t happen. The characteristics and foibles that make the young so charming can be twisted by time into liability. Hiding under the sink when guests arrive is no longer popularly regarded as cute by the time you’re old enough to shave. And a predilection for scab-eating is never so subject to scorn as when it’s practiced by a forty year old man in a business suit.
Some things must change, but others clearly oughtn’t. Where my teeth are concerned, it’s not longer obvious to me whether I’ve taken the right path, but in the time it takes me to figure it out the answer will probably have changed anyway.