Sunday, February 2, 2014
Last Tuesday morning, I was avoiding my gaze in the mirror, bringing the imperfections in the surface of the white ceramic bathroom sink into and out of focus with absent interest, Brushing My Teeth. Brushing My Teeth was once an activity of great mental investment, back when my head came up about as high as the counter opposite the toilet in my home back home. I remember fervidly seeking approval from my dad, who executed the motions of dental hygiene with a craftsman's certainty from his lofty height atop his trademark blue bath robe, as we both prepared to sleep. Thunderous glottal growls and passionate hocks from the back of the throat punctuated his proficient use of the toothbrush. It was all part of being a person, one more piece in the greater puzzle of how to act like a human, a problem I was very actively investigating at that time. (These days, I just shake my head.)
My dentist told me, twice a day, all the way in the back, don't forget the inside in the front, use small circles, and you'll have teeth when you're seventy. This list sums up my meta-knowledge about this activity. I picked up the details from my towering dad, from whom I mimed the adjustments of elbow flexion to accommodate the internal topologies of the mouth, the use of the thumb and forefinger to achieve stiff axial orientation control, and even the shifts of body weight from foot to foot accompanying these changes. My mother also showed me her techniques, but she was often reading or otherwise occupied while brushing, so I think her performance of the teeth ritual impressed me less.
These and a thousand other small ways of going about Brushing My Teeth I must have absorbed from my dad with total disregard for their motivation. I had neither the means nor the awareness for separating his idiosyncrasies from his ingenious economies. Over many sessions, I came to own my imitations, to define my personal take on being a person in terms of these imitations and many others, but I never acknowledged them, let alone assessed them.
But on Tuesday, more than a decade later, a tiny yellow tinge on the edge of one incisor called out to my wandering attention, and I was moved to use the bristles near the corner of the brush as a special tool to scrub at it. To do so, I handled the brush as I'd hold a piece of paper from the edge to view it, like a pincer between all four fingers and my thumb, and I moved the hand vertically.
The sudden awkwardness of the unfamiliar operation stuck out from a zoned out, unfocused landscape of practiced motions, and at that moment I experienced a happy accident of self-awareness. You will have to excuse the strangeness of the allegory with which my sleepy mind presented me. I imagined my teeth as the corrugated bottom of a strange man's bleach-stained tub, where the surface undulated gently from back to front, each wave delimited from its neighbor by a sharp downward cusp, as if the tub floor had been creased from the gums at the left to the cutting edge at the right. Each cusp, of course, is where my floss would go if I were to floss these funny tub-teeth. In my vision I held a substantial scrub-brush in both fists, the sort with the hard, harsh blue bristles and the wooden stock, and I was to scrub the tub clean, for some yellow gunk had accumulated on the white walls and especially in the crevices. I was on my knees, leaning into my work, throwing myself against the corner between an incisor and a canine with the crisp corner of the brush, and I was stirring up the filth satisfactorily, such that I knew that with a rinse I would see pure alabaster below. Such was the action of my new pincer maneuver against my teeth in my bizarrely aroused imagination.
My attention now shifted to the application of this visualization to other teeth and other situations. I was shocked and disappointed by my results. Dentists are right to insist on little circles over the gum rather than the longitudinal shuffling-back-and-forth of stereotypical Toothbrushing, but it was painful to think that either one should be recommended as an adequate solution to the problem of cleaning my tub-teeth. I ascertained that my arm would need to be bound in a splint, and I an invalid set to an inappropriately vigorous task, before I could unflinchingly sustain the idea, which I considered to be parallel to uninformed Toothbrushing, of holding the scrub-brush at an arm's length and sliding it fore and aft across the bumpy tub bottom, the bristles glancing on the crests and never becoming remotely acquainted with the cracks below. I would approach myself and say sternly, "You're clearly unwell; please do yourself a favor and go back to bed," and if I returned,
"Oh, excuse me, I must have forgotten myself for a moment; I'll switch back to doing circles right away," and began to gyrate my shoulder and trunk to impart an additional transverse motion, I would certainly question my sanity before I accepted that in so doing I would somehow render the tub spotless. It is just distastefully obvious that any sensible, healthy person would use a variety of techniques to accommodate the variegated geometry of the tub floor, sometimes bringing the edge and sometimes the flat of the brush to bear as the locale demands. Why had I never thought to visualize the end and the means?
The engineer in me rose in wrath at the flagrant misapplication of a tool in the hands of a neophyte. My cheeks flushed and my eyes focused on my mouth in the window of the mirror with the earnestness, familiar to me, of a new discovery to explore, as I experimented with unprecedented feats of dental care. (Of the proof herein that I am a total dork I was then blissfully unconscious.) I held the brush like a hammer, chisel, chopstick and pen. I subtended every possible solid angle of approach. I shook with the embarrassing failures of coordination which unpracticed quick, periodic motions elicit. Along these lines I was reminded of my first unsteady stabs at the 2013 phenomenon of twerking, and that is when I came to myself and wondered what someone who happened into the bathroom at that time would think of me; then I pursued the vista of toothbrushing possibilities at a more subdued pace.
Now I became wondrous too of the scope of interpretation latent in such well-trod territory as my bathroom sink routine. Toothbrushes exist to make little circles in my mouth, or so my previous, one-dimensional conception of the thing had it. Doing the little circles kept my teeth clean daily. In retrospect I know that in twenty long years and thousands of instances of morning or evening Brushing My Teeth, I had kept apart these two halves of an obvious syllogism without ever fusing them into a simple truth: I clean my teeth. The toothbrush is but one effective tool.
There is a gulf between understanding and application. I see now that the circles suggested by my dentist were intended as introductory material, and that sticking to circles as I matured would be rather like sticking to "hello world" through a career as a programmer. It is the hallmark of a good teacher to introduce practice without theory in order to avoid alienation with too incomprehensible a view from the outset. However, it is then the student's responsibility to reach for the theory once the first simple example of the mechanics is spent.
I suspect that the name for the activity also contributed to my prolonged larval degree of understanding. Suppose my mother had reminded me nightly that it was "time to clean my teeth?" The verb "brush" brings to mind a well-traveled district of actions executed vacantly before a speckled mirror, never a very broad reach of possibilities whether regarding teeth or hair, to which "clean" appends a whole planet's worth of rich connotation. What everyday object cannot be "cleaned?" How many different ways can "cleaning" be attained? Better still, "clean" encapsulates all that is intended with the process at hand.
It is natural and seductive to extend the possibility of this kind of unwitting practice-without-theory into every other context, but actually I think that Brushing My Teeth is a representative of a small class of activities which are in the tense supersaturated situation of remaining unexamined while they become familiar by continual embedding into a suffusion of relevant experience and understanding. I learned about a hundred types of cleaning before I finally noted Brushing My Teeth as an absentee and admitted it to the generalization (where it will be permitted at last to shed its capitalization). These leftovers from early development are bound to collapse, one by one, in flashes of continuity. Presently, I think I have matured such that when something seems foreign but then becomes habit, I don't allow a very great portion of related experience to accumulate before I make the connection back to the original and include it in the budding generalization; for this reason I do not think that new, tense, practice-without-theory situations are emerging in my life at any appreciable rate. I wouldn't know, though, would I?