2018-packingpurse10

The Bachelorette and Skinny Repeal

I started watching The Bachelorette this season because I heard that the franchise had cast a person of color as its lead for the first time. Plus, I needed some brain candy to keep me company on the exercise bike.

This week was the “Men Tell All” episode, essentially a cast reunion that rehashes the season’s drama. One of those incidents involved a white man, Lee, falsely accusing a black man, Kenny, of physical aggression. Later, it came out that Lee had posted tweets comparing the NAACP to the KKK.

Today, as I pedaled away, I watched the racially diverse cast of men join together to publicly call Lee out on his racism. Black men and white men alike wasted no words in decrying his behavior, and he squirmed in his seat and did his best to talk about learning experiences and avoid the word “racist.”

It felt cathartic to watch this racist white man being put in his place, to see these injustices named and discussed on national television and in the bright light of day (or the studio). But, at the same time, it felt like a taxing spectacle, something difficult rather than celebratory. Viscerally, it didn’t feel as though something good had been accomplished, only that something awry had been, with great effort, set back in its rightful place.

There was something disconcertingly familiar about that feeling, but it took me several minutes to place it. Then I remembered.

The last time I felt the same way was just last week, actually. Tense with dread and yet unable to look away, I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, watch C-SPAN’s live stream of the Senate voting on the “skinny” repeal of the Affordable Care Act. There was an inexplicable wait for the roll call that teased me with hope I didn’t dare indulge. I squinted at the blurry video and tried to figure out which U.S. Senators I could identify from the side or back, then gave up and refreshed Twitter to learn the details: Mike Pence was lobbying John McCain to support the measure.

When the roll call came at last and the results were read back, I counted the 51 “No” votes on my fingers and understood that the Republicans had pulled defeat from the jaws of victory, that the measure had failed, that for this night, at least, I would be able to keep my health insurance. I didn’t feel ebullience, only a heavy sense of relief. It didn’t feel like a desire had been granted, only like a horror had been spared.

There are so many ways in which our society lets down the worst off among us. A black man on reality TV endured a white man painting him as a negative racial stereotype for sport. Millions of us had our future health care coverage hanging in the balance of a muffled conversation between two old white men in the middle of the night.

Righting those wrongs is important. It’s necessary.

But it’s also laborious and effortful, and it doesn’t feel like joy. It feels exhausting. It feels like we undertook a monumental effort just to return things to the way they should have been all along, to the way that the lucky few get to take for granted.

Of course, because we ask television to make us feel good, when a white racist, after intense prodding, finally acknowledges that his tweet — not even himself, just his tweet! — was racist, is finally willing to speak the word “racist,” he’s greeted by hugs and handshakes, applause and forgiveness.

It reminded me of the way that John McCain was greeted by applause and widespread accolades for, in the very last moment, doing the difficult, necessary work that 50 other Senators had been doing all along.

We all have our weaknesses and our failings. I understand that. As much as anybody, I believe in our ability to mature, evolve, and grow into better people. But I’m going to hold my applause the next time we see a person of extreme privilege do not a great thing, simply the decent thing, after a concerted campaign from those with more to lose. Because, to me, that’s part of believing in improvement. We can do better than this.

I demand better than this.

2018-packingpurse10

Sufficiently Advanced Dentistry

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — Arthur C. Clarke

When you don’t have something, you try your best to live without it.

I didn’t have dental insurance, so I didn’t go to the dentist for almost a decade. In that time, I developed two cavernous cavities, and eventually, trying to dig out food debris with a curved metal pick, I broke off a sizable section of one of them. Even then, I tried to get used to the idea of living with only half that tooth. Only when it became so badly infected that chewing made me cry, when popping painkillers and gargling 70%-alcohol mouthwash weren’t enough to numb the pain, did I finally set up a dentist appointment.

That was last fall. I ended up getting a tooth extraction, a root canal, a post-and-core, and a crown over the course of a single month. In the spring, I had another surgery to put in a dental implant. This month, I’ll finally get my second crown and put this whole saga to rest. The process has been lengthy and unpleasant and a lot more costly than a decade of paying out-of-pocket for preventative dental care would have been.

Maybe it was one of those failed gambles we make in the folly of youth, or maybe it’s a reflection of the state of health care in America, but probably I simply should have known better and made better choices. Still, there’s something almost miraculous about the way that mistakes like this can be fixed, if not unmade. I’ll live with an implant and two crowns for the rest of my life, but soon my teeth will be whole again. I’m not sure I would have dared to imagine that a year ago.

And I sure couldn’t have imagined how much technology would change the process of fixing my teeth even in the course of that one year. When I got my first crown last winter, the dentist installed a separator around my tooth and had me bite down, hard, on a putty for 15 minutes. He then sent the impression this created to a lab, which used it as a mold to fabricate my crown. Once the lab sent the finished crown back to my dentist, he fit it onto my tooth. The whole process took a couple of weeks.

Since then, my dentist has moved to a new location. His new office is beautifully-renovated, with three-dimensional decorative wall panels and television monitors on the ceiling and fancy, high-tech dental tools. Yesterday, when I went in to start the process for my second crown, the dentist switched off the lights and brought a wand up to my mouth. When he activated the wand, which was a digital intraoral scanner, it emitted a bright glow and, bewilderingly, played cheerful circus music that reminded me of a merry-go-round.

The dentist swooped the scanner this way and that, moving it around my missing tooth, capturing the scene from different angles. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my gums and my teeth and my implant on his computer screen, magnified into the contours of a grotesque, otherworldly landscape. In the shadowy scene reflected in the television screen on the ceiling, it looked as though some sort of summoning ritual was about to take place inside my mouth.

After a minute or two, the dentist set down the wand, turned on the light, and showed me his computer screen, which now displayed a detailed facsimile of the inside of my mouth. In the gap of my missing tooth, he drew in the outline of a tooth with his mouse. He pressed a button, and the outline transformed into a digitally-rendered tooth. He looked at it from a few different angles, making tiny adjustments here and there to its curvature and spacing. When he was satisfied, he told me, a machine would use this computer model to mill a piece of ceramic to the exact specifications of my tooth. It could be ready within hours.

When you don’t have something, you try your best to live without it, or you find a way to attain it, or you invent something new to take its place. This human capability for betterment is within each of us. And it is almost indistinguishable from magic.