Monthly Archives: May 2015

Mind The Gap

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As a child, I felt extremely fortunate to be spared the pain and indignity of braces. The indignity was perceived; growing up decades before the introduction of more discreet orthodontia inventions like Invisalign or lingual braces, my only associations were the railroad tracks cemented across the teeth of the poor souls I watched in the lunch room, forced to cut their apples and carrots into miniature pieces and denied such life-affirming foods as popcorn and pizza crust, for the love of God. I heard horror stories of night braces and orthodontia headgear, specifically designed to drastically lower one’s chances of being recognized as a human person, rather than as a cyborg with hormonal acne. I watched friends slowly drag out their retainers before meals, creating strings of thickly webbed saliva that grew and thinned until they snapped and remained hanging from the device, swaying in the breeze precariously until wiped away.

There was no uncertainty about the pain of braces however, which was made exceedingly evident to me through the tribulations of my younger sister.  Deemed orthodontia-ready by the age of 15, she was forced to endure years of what resembled tiny barbed wire fencing around the expanse of each tooth, and I wondered if it was painful to close her tiny lips over them, for fear of ripping right through the flesh. On several occasions, I had the misfortune of accompanying her to the orthodontist’s office to have her braces tightened, a fairly barbaric process which seemed to me not unlike the medieval method of thumbscrews, but on one’s gums. While I gratefully stayed behind in the waiting room, she disappeared behind the door of what was surely a dungeon torture chamber, which I ascertained from the sounds of metal scraping, gear grinding and anguished human screams that emanated from within.  My sister, who typically practiced respect and deference to adults, could be heard issuing forth a steady stream of obscenities, threats and general terror toward her doctor which included promises of making future appointments with him in hell.  At the end of the visit, I couldn’t tell who was more upset, my sister or the orthodontist.

Although it was gratifying to evade this brief phase of oral shackling, which surely would have compounded all the other anguish and agony of my adolescence; I was disappointed to discover a by-product of growing in my teeth naturally. A fairly sizable gap between my two top incisors. As a child, the only bother it bore me was an interesting sucking noise that occurred while I drank from a cup, but as I grew older and began placing more importance on my physical appearance, I couldn’t help comparing my mirrored image to a beaver or the Easter Bunny. I would stare at my visage while chewing on a piece of Chiclet’s gum, eventually forcing it with my tongue in between the empty space in my teeth to create the illusion of the missing enamel and think about what might have been.

Ever conscious of my gap, I tried to remember to always keep my lips closed while having my picture taken. Still, there are several pieces of photographic evidence from various school yearbooks that document an unintentional toothy smile; my front teeth dipping below my lips like the tiniest of sawed-off vampire fangs. Not the Twilight kind, but the Nosferatu kind.

As a bespectacled teenager working alongside several (slightly) older men at a bookstore in the local mall, I was introduced to the fairly absurd concept of my gap being a badge of sexual prowess. “Gaps are sexy,” I was told. But, the revelation was delivered more in the way of “I’m telling you that because you are somewhat nerdy and I hope it brings you genuine comfort”, rather than “And, now I will ask for your phone number.”

Still the idea of my diastema – the technical word for a space between two teeth – being a help rather than a hindrance to my overall appearance grew on me.  After all, Chaucer wrote of ‘the gap-toothed wife of Bath’ because of the connection of the physical characteristic with lustful tendencies, a popular premise at the time. Several African cultures associate gapped-tooth women with increased fertility and cosmetic procedures to create a gap are common. And, in France, they are called ‘dents du bonheur’ or ‘lucky teeth’. Perhaps it was finally time to ‘embrace my space.’

As an adult, I have more or less come to terms with my gap, though my thoughts on its allure vary depending on which gap-toothed celebrity I am told my mouth resembles. Madonna and Lauren Hutton, I’m fine with, but I was a bit more distraught at a recent comparison to Lawrence Fishburne.

Ironically, gapped teeth are currently having a moment and I can’t turn several pages of any fashion magazine without coming face-to-face with an advertisement featuring a close-up of a gap-toothed model; eyelids heavy and lips slightly parted so as not to miss the dark section of nothingness between her two front teeth. Regardless of the product being promoted – from eyeliner to dog food to lawn mowers – such a facial expression is necessary to bring prominent exposure to the gap – a clause no doubt written into her contract.

I am still routinely wooed by dentists who promise to ‘fix’ me.

“You know it’s going to keep growing, don’t you?” one dentist intoned ominously at a recent appointment, “The space, I mean.”

“Really?” I wondered how big it could actually get before becoming a small window into the inner workings of my mastication process for the entire world to see.

“Don’t you change a thing, sweetie!” his dental hygienist clucked, “That space gives you character.”

Being told my gap gives me ‘character’, which is often used as a synonym for ‘unattractive’, routinely makes me question my life-long commitment to accepting it as my fate.  Still, as I grow older and watch various parts of my face and body change and evolve, what remains the same (albeit imperceptibly larger, apparently) is that space between my teeth.  No doubt it will provide me with an amusing level of eccentric charm for years to come….Not to mention a superior level of spitting abilities.

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Like Mother, Like Son

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Certainly, one of the most peculiar parts of being a parent is watching the emerging idiosyncratic quirks that slowly bubble up to the surface of your child’s personality, especially when they seem to mirror your own. Here is a person – a separate entity – living outside of your brain, yet somehow seems to have absorbed and reflected so many of your own attitudes and inclinations. If the culprit is nature, you must assume your anxious disposition or pessimistic temperament originated in your DNA and seeped through the membranes into your unborn child as you lay prostrate and pregnant, pondering the ways you might ruin her. If it’s nurture, you have surely laid the groundwork for his impatience and volatility by tapping your foot angrily while you wait for him to clean up his toys. Either way, you seem to have only yourself to blame.

I was faced with this quandary yesterday when my nine-year-old son approached me with tears in his eyes.

“What is it?” I said nervously, my eyes scanning his body for bruises or bumps. Initially, he refused to answer and continued to wrap his tiny arms tighter around my torso.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” I coaxed, “I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

Finally, he succumbed. “It’s cello,” he admitted, “I don’t want to take it anymore.”

My eldest son, who has the vocabulary and sensibilities of a 40-year-old, refers to me by my first name and reads reference books for pleasure. He breezes through the advanced placement classes we enrolled him in two years ago, politely converses with older relatives and possesses a sense of patience with small children so profound, we’ve lately taken to calling him ‘the baby whisperer.’

“There’s something about him,” more than one grandmother has told me, “I really feel a strong connection with him.”

In some ways, he reminds me of myself at that age, especially when I see him interacting with adults or displaying a soft layer of sensitivity and empathy that one rarely sees in children his age. He has a strong need to relate to others and develop a rapport with everyone he meets. Sometimes his intelligence, coupled with his keen communicative abilities allows him the luxury of capably avoiding or abandoning situations which may require more intensive exertion on his part.

“You want to quit cello now?” I asked, “Look, you at least need to finish out the year.”

He shook his head. “I just don’t have the time to commit to it. It’s just too stressful for me right now.”

I couldn’t help smiling at these decidedly adult words coming out of the mouth of my diminutive son, who is routinely mistaken for a first grader due to his small stature and frame.

“You are supposed to practice 10 minutes a day,” I said, “That’s not so much, especially when I see you spending more than twice that on a video game.”

“But, it’s really hard. And, I haven’t been practicing enough,” he whimpered, his eyes filling up again, “And, now it’s too late to catch up and the teacher is going to yell at me when he finds out I wasn’t really telling the truth about how much I’ve been practicing, and…”

The whole web of deceit spun out from his lips, as he related how he had lied on the practice sheets the teacher handed out.  I was very familiar with these sheets which were designed to compel children to track the minutes each day they spend on their instruments, and I signed off on them regularly with the somewhat vague knowledge that I was perpetuating a deception, as I was fairly aware the 70 minutes he professed to playing on a weekly basis was less of an exaggeration and more of a blatant fiction.

These last several weeks of increasing subterfuge had snowballed into a critical situation for my son. The lack of practice was excruciatingly obvious as he dragged his bow painfully across the strings to emit a sound not unlike the rusty creaking of an ancient tomb door. I had been wincing in the other room listening to it right before he had first approached me crying. The cello, my son had obviously decided, was to be categorized in his head of ‘things that don’t come easily’ and rather than choosing determination and hard work, he was desperately trying to convince me to let him ditch it. By removing this current blemish of failure, he could again return to his accustomed reputation of perfection.

The simplicity of the decision he had made – never again return to cello class – to solve this problem was as satisfying and sensible to him as it was maddening to me. Not that I could blame him. Because he got it from me.

Obviously, I am far from perfect, but much of my life has been carefully constructed to avoid inadvertently revealing my analytic inefficiencies. Like many bright children, I became accustomed to being called smart. And, it was only when I excelled at something that I received that praise. If I couldn’t excel, then I didn’t earn the approval. If someone wasn’t praising me, then I felt criticized. And, if I didn’t feel smart, well then, I guess I felt lacking or deficient. And, certainly, that was one of the worst feelings in the world.

Scholastic and academic prowess had always been paramount in my house. No one cared whether you made the team (or even went out for it), but bringing home a less than perfect test score prompted the inquiry, “What happened to the other two points?” My father’s aggressively well-read intellectualism and broad grasp of politics, history and social culture was intimidating but inspiring, and I craved his praise, which seemed to be granted on occasions few and far between.  The thick aroma of mildew that sometimes hung heavily in the air of my father’s alcoved office amid the warped wooden shelves that held countless quantities of yellowing books in various states of decay was the smell of intelligence. Even so, my sisters and I learned quickly not to ask my father for help with schoolwork.  Instead of answers, you got a stack of dusty, ancient tomes, too voluminous to read and too heavy to carry back up to your room.

As a result of my perceived pressure to stay perfect on my own, I carefully avoided pursuits I felt outside my range of proficiency. I never pushed myself, never set my sights high on the horizon, never took failure as a learning experience, but only as a warning to remove something from my purview. My mother was only too happy to help me in this regard. I was given free rein to quit any activity that made me feel incompetent or frustrated.  As a young woman reflecting on my mother’s encouragement and sometimes even blatant suggestion that I give up on endeavors I found more difficult, I remember feeling angry that she didn’t push me to work harder, but today, as the mother of two young boys who would do almost anything to stop their pain or suffering, be it a broken leg or a hangnail, I find myself better able to appreciate her choices, even as I struggle to make different ones.

There is no question the value my father placed on scholarly achievements has been reflected back into my own parenting with my oldest son. It doesn’t bother me that he barely knows the rules of most sports games and has the slight and petite physical build of a spectator. The ease with which I watch him undertake most academic subject matters gives me a thrill. When his acceptance into the advanced placement program seemed in jeopardy, preparing an appeal on his behalf became a critical mission for me. I enjoy boasting about his scholastic efforts to friends and family, and although I try to abide by the current educational trend of avoiding the term ‘smart’ in favor of ‘motivated’ or ‘determined’, I have been guilty of letting the ‘s’ word slip out here and there. Perhaps the pride that I take in his accomplishments is a manifestation of the memories I harbor of my own – the strong need to outshine and out succeed – or quit trying.

As he stood before me, his red, tear-tinged eyes filled with anxiety and fear, I wondered whether he was more concerned about being caught in an embarrassing, lingering lie or if the pressure of needing to feel perfect was weighing heavily upon his tiny shoulders. Had I contributed to his angst? Had I laid the groundwork for a redux of qualities that I recognize in myself and strive to surpass?

For a moment, like my mother before me, I was possessed with the overwhelming need to save him from this cello-induced catastrophe. Call his teacher and explain why he must be excused for the rest of the year. Maybe I could blame it on finances, “I’m sorry, we just can’t afford the 12 dollars a month to rent it anymore,” or the psychological stress of too many after-school activities, “It’s either cello or Minecraft class, and he really loves Minecraft….” or even carpel tunnel syndrome, “A doctor’s note?  Is that REALLY necessary…?”  Whatever it took to remove this worrisome burden from the brow of my fragile first-born baby.

Instead, I took a deep breath and said, “Cello is not stressful. Not practicing and lying about it seems to be extremely stressful, however. Wouldn’t you agree?”

He nodded emphatically.

“I will write a note to your teacher to explain that you have fallen a little behind and see if there is a way to get extra help. In the meantime, how about we BOTH agree to remind each other about you practicing every day? Because I know you don’t want to go through this again, right?”

While I was not surprised by the initial enthusiasm that went into cello practice over the next several days, I was slightly bemused when it continued. A week later, on a night that bedtime loomed and the cello had not yet been played, I suggested he take the day off.

“You’ve been really good.  You can skip it one day,” I assured him.

He shook his head and picked up his bow. “I won’t get better if I don’t practice,” he said, shrugging.

And THAT, really sounded nothing like me.

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