Who Will Floss the Dog?

You gotta love the bus! It’s like going to a movie, only cheaper. There are as many programs as there are seats, and with the old people, you sometimes don’t even have to be sitting near to them.

Buses provided some of the first equal opportunity stages, I think. I had a look in Wikipedia, hoping for a theatrical link, but alas, it seemed drawn to the more pragmatic aspects. It told me that ‘Bus is a clipped form of the Latin word omnibus. The first horse-drawn omnibus service was started by a businessman named Stanislas Baudry in the French city of Nantes in 1823’, and that ‘Regular intercity bus services by steam-powered buses were pioneered in England in the 1830s by Walter Hancock and by associates of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, among others, running reliable services over road conditions which were too hazardous for horse-drawn transportation.’ It doesn’t say anything about when buses became travelling entertainment salons, however. Or maybe I’m just easily amused…

For example, last week I decided to respond to a politely-worded summons from my dentist. Apparently he figured I hadn’t been around in a long time and thought his dental tech might need to do a little scraping and filing, or something. He didn’t use those words, exactly, but I’ve known him for a while and could sense his concern that my flossing might not meet current standards, nor the toothbrush they gave me last year still doing something more than merely shoving the food around. I chose to ignore his subtle but sublingual hint that my visit might also help with his vacation plans. I hoped the bus might afford me some distraction.

The bus was sparsely populated and eerily quiet when I boarded it at its terminus, so I had an unexpected mélange of seats. Much like a hockey arena, the seats on a bus can be graded. There are the rafter seats –right at the back and usually over something that vibrates and rattles worryingly. Then, of course, the midrange variety where entertainment is rife, but often cacophonous and conversation lacks the normal cohesion and sourceability that permits useful comprehension. I usually try for what would pass for the seats-behind-the-bench at a game –a few seats back from the senior’s area, but with a row of seats interposed between for the women with children… or suitcases, rickety boxes tied with strings, overstuffed shopping bags –clunky stuff that reeks of the unusual and a need to tell somebody about it.

As luck would have it, there were only two people –a middle aged man in a fedora, brown overcoat and scuffed shoes, sitting with an older woman wearing a long pink coat and a speckled grey pig tail that didn’t go at all with her age. But there were no bizarre boxes anywhere in sight in the coveted area, so I settled in for a long and disappointing ride, condemned to travel inwards, undistracted, and filled with all the anticipatory dread that only dentists and Proctologists can inspire. But it can’t always be ribbons and Disneyland, I guess.

I closed my eyes and tried to position my head in the balance position –something on which seasoned bussers pride themselves so their heads don’t end up on their laps drooling when they drift off.

“So glad I got that dental plan for Mara,” I heard the woman say as the bus started up.

My ears perked up. Maybe dental angst was more widespread than I’d thought.

“You got a dental plan for her, Lizzie?” It was the man’s voice, and he sounded surprised. “How much did that set you back?”

I imagined a shrug. “Well, she’s had bad teeth for a few years, so I figured it was worth it…”

He chuckled. “Why do you always encourage her to eat what you eat?”

“And what’s wrong with that, Jim? I’m still healthy, you know.” A defensive tone had crept into her voice.

There was a momentary hesitation before he answered, sotto voce, “You told me you have false teeth, Liz…”

“Well, that’s not why, Jimmy. And besides, she’s eaten my kind of food ever since the adoption… Never heard a complaint, either!”

Silence followed –well, the usual bus-rumble anyway- and I was just drifting off into the all-forgiving arms of Lethe, when Lizzie spoke up again. “Do you have one for Keg?”

It occurred to me that either she was a sales representative for dental plans and was trying to sell a policy to Jim for his grandson, or maybe just a well-meaning grandmother that was used to giving advice.

“Keg’s doing okay, Martha. Probably his diet though, eh?” he added with a chuckle.

“He’s, what, five now…?”

Jim didn’t answer right away. “Uhmm, yes, I guess somewhere around that…”

“Somewhere?” She sounded indignant that he wasn’t sure. “When’s his birthday?” she said, each word a needle.

It was getting interesting so I opened my eyes. She was frowning at him like a mother at her son when he comes in late on a Friday night, her mouth a serpent’s grin.

“You mean the actual date?” He looked puzzled at her distress. She nodded her head sternly and glared at him as he tried to deflect her chagrin with a boyish smile. Then he shrugged and tried to bluff it. “June… I’m sure it was in June…”

She sat back in her seat, obviously only partially mollified. “I’ll find out from Sally,” she said after shaking her head as if to say that men shouldn’t be trusted with anything important anyway. “She’ll know.”

“Yes, maybe she will… But remember, we’re just taking care of him on those days our daughter is away at school. Janice didn’t want to leave him alone in her apartment.”

Her eyes snapped towards him suddenly as if he just admitted to child abuse. “Well… he’s still going to have dental problems -if he doesn’t already. You have to start flossing him. Just being male doesn’t protect him, you know. You wait and see…” She reached back and pulled the cord for the bus to stop, and hurried out the door after telling Jim she’d be sure to phone Sally.

I could see him roll his eyes, and he noticed me watching so he shrugged again. “I’ve never heard of a cat needing a dental plan, have you,” he said, laughing at the thought.

I shook my head, but what did I know? “And Keg is…”

“My daughter’s dog… And no,” he added when he noticed the relief on my face. “I’ve never tried flossing him…”

Suddenly, my dental needs seemed to slip into a different gear.



The New Age String Theory

Retirement is a two-edged sword: there’s more time available, but less time left to use it. And yet, age wears perspective on its cuffs and dresses in knowledge if we are lucky. And even from its recently shrunken pedestal, it still offers a unique view of the variegated panoply of progress. We can observe the problems in which we were once enmeshed, but from a safer distance; and we can grasp that although they are different, they are really the same. It is feeble comfort, perhaps, but it is Wisdom.

And yet there is a catch: for Wisdom to flower, for enlightenment to blossom, for Pattern to emerge, there must be the weft and warp of things past. Aye, there’s the rub: having survived to experience Retirement, what shadows lurk in still, dark corners? Is crippling mental decline the comfortable chair beckoning from across the room? Or, as with Othello, are we already so declined into the vale of years, we head towards it for relief?

One of the few perquisites of Age, is the permission to wander short distances from the heavily trodden road under the guise of hindsight. It is, however, a balancing act: stray too far, and it’s dementia; tiptoe only circumspectly, and it is a forgettable idiosyncrasy. But, after travelling all this distance through the years as an eccentric and then arriving unscathed at the nether end, am I only to be tolerated –or worse, institutionalized? It is not the epitaph I had in mind. Rather, I wish it to be acknowledged that, unlike many, I was able to floss to the very end -although I’m not sure how that would look on a tombstone.

Perhaps I should explain. Flossing –for those of you not old enough to remember- was a meditation technique reputedly invented in 1819 by a dentist in New Orleans, but I think the practice has been around for a lot longer than that -as long as we’ve had hair, anyway. In fact, I remember seeing it in action by some women on a bus in Bolivia years ago. Hair was merely a dross waiting for a need –waiting for evolution.

Of course, flossing is something that requires a fair amount of coordination and ontogenesis; it can be done without an opposable thumb, I suppose, although it’s hard to tear off the string from the little container without one. Thus it is rarely observed in rats or beavers despite the need, and I’m given to understand that chimpanzees will not do it while they are being watched, so we don’t know about them. Neither will I, for that matter.

Flossing underwent a bit of a decline during the war years, probably because all available string was shipped overseas for the war effort. It made a spectacular resurgence in the affluent 1950ies, however, when actually keeping an intact set of teeth became a distinct possibility. Who can forget that black and white TV commercial sung by my mother’s favourite -Doris Day: ‘Floss your teeth today, in your Chevrolet’? Oh, the memories! Maybe it’s still on YouTube…

Nowadays, flossing has become so important, it’s almost New Age in the intensity with which its spirituality has been espoused -although not quite so hokeyWe flossing aficionados have long been aware of the underground data linking filthy gums to health risks. Flossers, it was hinted, lived longer, more productive lives than those who just watched TV before they went to bed –String Theory it’s called in some circles, although they may have borrowed the term. At any rate, I am pleased to report that my retired sources think they remember reading that there is new evidence that flossing may help stave off the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Or maybe it was arthritis -they weren’t sure.

A little background. Most of us by now are steeped in the preventative lore of Sudoku, crossword puzzles, dietary strategies, and even exercise to ward off cognitive decline. We have become sifters through health promises, traders of articles -Googlemasters. All for that elusive lottery of memory -for what are we, really, without memory? It is what knits the ravelled sleeve of who we are. That I wake up each day convinced I am the same person who went to sleep, and that I recognize as friends those faces which appear before me, is what validates a life. I take no comfort in Nietzsche’s jibe that ‘The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.’ That is the urbane rationalization of one who thinks the exact opposite… Of one who thinks.

I suspect the root of the problem of cognitive decline is that Science is still unable to pinpoint a cause or -at the level of neurons and their increasingly dysfunctional connections with age- a way of preventing the degeneration. Of course it makes sense to provide adequate and appropriate nourishment to them (dietary management); make sure they stay well oxygenated (exercise); and with the increasing awareness of the plasticity of the brain for laying down fresh neural pathways, to continually challenge it with new material (socialization, games, etc.). But why this is more necessary as we age, is problematic. There have been various theories throughout the years as to the effects of such things as arterial narrowing and inflammatory processes in the cerebral blood vessels, but the issue of whether or not it is inevitable still remains.

So, is there anything more we can we do about it? String Theory may offer some hope. Suppose that flossing does get rid of the plaque that inflames gums which otherwise, ISIS-like, would have sent terrorists far and wide to wreak havoc? Suppose that, in the end, it all comes down to clean gums? Maybe I can die with a good memory, recognizing who I am until the very last syllable of my recorded time.

And yet, and yet… I am still haunted. Do I really want to be bright and clear until that last breath, aware that I’m about to tumble off the edge? Maybe there’s a reason for pre-terminal forgetfulness -a numbness that we tamper with at our peril… Maybe we shouldn’t be flossing too close to our dies mortis

Are you allowed to fake stuff on your epitaph?