The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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The same day I get the bad news about my gums, I find out the hole in the ozone layer is worse than anyone thought.
It’s not just that the hole is getting bigger. We’re eggs on the griddle: higher doses of ultraviolet radiation leaking through the fragile ozone shield mean more skin cancers, more cataracts, you name it. But now, scientists report that in the Antarctic, where the hole in the ozone layer was discovered, there’s been a 12 percent decline in the growth of phytoplankton, the tiny, single-cell plants that are eaten by nearly all aquatic animals. According to one researcher, the effect eventually “could cascade through the food chain.”
I read the story to N., who shakes her head. What’s more, she says, those tiny, single-cell plants produce more oxygen than the rain forest. I nod. The ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, acid rain: I get them mixed up. I took biology when it was the study of life, not disaster; when “the sky is falling” was a line in a children’s story, not a headline. Maybe I’d understand more about the environment if I cared more. I tell myself it’s people I care about: crowded, brawling cities; politics; literature; the life of the mind. I joke, like Woody Allen, about my “twoness” with nature. N. doesn’t laugh. She understands more, she worries more, about the environment. I worry what to say about it. “None of this is funny,” N. says. I sigh. “I thought you liked Woody Allen.”
The dentist shakes her head. The tenderness in the gums, she says, the slight bleeding — most people consider these symptoms a normal sign of aging. They’re not. They’re a sign of sickness. Invisible and painless in its early stages, the disease is easy to ignore even as bacteria attack the gum tissue. Later, after the bones and ligaments that support the teeth have been damaged, after the foul breath and oozing pus, after the disease has turned into something called periodontitis, surgery may be required; tooth loss is inevitable.
Periodontitis: a word that sends you to your knees, begging for forgiveness. A word that dresses in black and smells of disinfectant. The dentists must have stayed up all night, tossing words back and forth like frisbees, before they came up with this one. If we were told the world had periodontitis, wouldn’t we be more alarmed? Words, I tell N., are everything. The environmentalists need to learn this. Their metaphors are too bland, too agreeable. On a chilly day, global warming sounds friendly, like curling up before a fire. The greenhouse effect? I think of ferns.
I picture the planet on the dentist’s chair, getting the awful news. Periodontitis? The planet gulps. It can’t be that bad. The pockets around some of the teeth are pretty deep, the dentist says. We meant to floss. Of course, the dentist says. We’ll start tonight. Tonight, the dentist says. Like a priest who has listened to too many confessions, she smiles tenderly, wearily. She calls this the pleading stage. She knows we’re wedded to catastrophe, that we’d sooner argue over our epitaph than change our habits.
Not me. No more jokes about recycled toilet paper, I promise N. I’m on my knees.
That night I floss. I brush. I read A Healthier Mouth: It’s Up to You. I floss again. I think, maybe we’re not more alarmed because the hole in the ozone layer isn’t a problem for most of us — the way the economy is a problem, or the car’s run-down battery is a problem, or, let’s face it, what to have for lunch is a problem. The ozone layer is remote, twenty miles up in the stratosphere: about as far away as the ice skating rink in Hillsborough, where my fifteen-year-old daughter asked me to drive her the other night. Get a ride with someone else, I said. But how I worried when she was late.
Yet what good is worrying, or pointing a finger? The newspaper says ozone depletion today is the result of emissions from thirty years ago. But thirty years ago I’d never heard of fluorocarbons or flossing. So who’s to blame? Marilyn Monroe for using spray deodorant? John F. Kennedy for not putting a stop to it? We may as well blame our love affair with America, her tall buildings and long highways, her industrial sleek and shine. Or God, for giving us all this freedom, with only one stipulation, one tiny, nagging clause in the otherwise perfect contract: that we learn what freedom really means.
I work the floss along the curved surface of each tooth, like a shoeshine boy with his buffing rag. I floss carefully, because plaque is sticky, practically invisible, clinging to tooth surfaces as tenaciously as Exxon to its profits, oil to a dead bird’s wing. I floss because I want to clean up the toxic dump I’ve made of my mouth. I floss because, as Wendell Berry says, one person who changes his ways is worth a hundred who talk about it.
Standing before the mirror, eighteen inches of nylon thread wrapped too tightly around my fingers, my mouth oozing blood, do I really imagine I’m healing the planet? Politics is personal, but this is ridiculous. Individual gestures are important, but why sentimentalize the power of the individual, as if each of us could be a Gandhi or a Mother Teresa? This is Earth Day rhetoric, nailing us to the wall while the real criminals slip away.
I swing between hope and despair on the vine of each day’s headlines. I mutter helplessly about America as if it were something I accidentally stepped in. Yet every choice has implications I can barely imagine: walking to the store instead of driving, or boycotting a certain product, or growing some tomatoes, or marching in a demonstration, or demonstrating what it means to govern myself. The body, too, calls out for compassion; it doesn’t want to be treated the way the polluters treat the rivers and the skies. Is my body mine, to do with as I please? Is it private property? After all, oneness isn’t a lofty idea, something abstract and spiritual, but a bare-bones description of reality, spun of individual acts.
Sometimes what matters is changing a habit. The only way I’m going to make flossing a daily routine — I know, because I’ve tried before and failed — is to floss right after dinner, instead of waiting until bedtime when I’m tired. But this means not snacking after dinner, not turning to food as consolation for sadness or boredom. This is another habit I’ve tried to break.
Sometimes what matters is paying attention to my resolve, which turns on itself, analyzes and mocks itself: does the world depend on people like me? What a struggle to be present, completely present, with the dying oceans and the dying trees, with this mortal body on this mortal planet.
We had the recycling bins outside the office for months before I started separating my trash at the end of the day. It was too much trouble to sift through my wastebasket, separating the white paper from the yellow paper from the catalogs from the cardboard. From the apple cores. From the plastic container still sticky with cottage cheese. Who wanted to stand outside, in the cold, in the heat, picking through the detritus of the day? It was like flossing. I liked it better when healing the planet meant long hair and rock music and marching against the war, when it meant telling everyone else what needed to be changed.
I thoroughly enjoyed your essay on gum health [“The Sky’s The Limit,” Issue 194]. Never have I heard this message put in such global and individual terms at the same time. I like the “detritus of the day” and the “toxic dump” notions; I’ll use those in the future if you don’t mind.