Thursday, September 24, 2009

For better or worse, our choices

Teeth matter.

I know that. Really, I do. It’s just that, well, when financial means are finite and medical costs so high, there are limits to the possible. This isn’t rocket science, it’s basic common sense. It applies to every facet of our lives and colors the way we see the world. Our world, our tiny fraction of the greater whole. Unless, of course, you’re independently wealthy. I don’t know much about wealth other than what I’ve seen—and I’ve worked in the homes of several millionaires and at least one billionaire—but from what I can gather it works for some and for others it’s merely a catalyst for more misery. Some people would be miserable no matter how much money they had in the bank. I guess wealth is like having four-wheel-drive on bad roads: it’ll take you farther, but it can also get you stuck deeper and farther from home.

During my last visit to the dentist, my tires were spinning so fast there was a faint odor of burning rubber when he peered into my open maw, poked around with a sharp sickle-shaped tool, hemmed and hawed and, looking grimfaced and professional, rattled off a string of technical terms such as “upper right b-3 anterior bicuspidific mandibular lingual” and “lower distal amalgam debridement alloplastic gingiva” and “occlusal periapical hoomey-floomy,” only a little of which I understood. When the assistant printed out a long detailed list of dental infidelities, misalignments, cracks, fault lines and erosional defacements and how much it would cost to repair the same, I translated his speech into something like: “I can now buy that new BMW I’ve had my eye on.”

Now, I’m not faulting the dentist. His costs are high, too, and he does excellent work using the latest technologies and techniques. Everything costs more these days, from milk to clothing to fuel. My homeowners insurance jumped 30 percent this summer. But nothing prepared me for the shock when I read his estimate. It was, to put it mildly, exorbitant.

Much of this is my fault. I should have had my teeth crowned, capped, wined, dined and pampered when I had insurance back in Denver. Instead, I opted to save every penny we made for the day we took the big jump and sailed clear of Colorado into homelessness and joblessness. Now I’m one of millions of Americans without health or dental insurance, and find myself avoiding medical facilities like the plague. Fortunately I’m fairly healthy and the one medication I take is inexpensive. If it weren't, I wouldn’t take it.

My teeth are another matter. If they were horses, they’d be culled from the herd and boiled into Elmer’s glue.

Friends and relatives ask me why I don’t have medical insurance. I could lie and say I can’t afford it, but I prefer honesty. I could easily afford it if I went without books, camera equipment or, depending on the plan’s deductible, groceries and beer. In short, I could work for the insurance company, funneling to them my hard-earned paychecks while retaining a pittance for the electrical bill.

Believe me, it’s crossed my mind. And does so more frequently as age weakens my infrastructure, dims my eyes and veils my hearing. Compounding this equation is the fact that I’ve crossed a dreaded threshold in age and see myself on the far side of the middle mark and, frankly, fending off the advances of AARP has wearied me. I do not wish to be part of their organization but, like Wal-Mart, that determined group of gray-haired geezers doesn’t take no for an answer. Too, friends and relatives have dropped by the wayside, which ultimately reminds me of my own mortality. And that, in turn, reminds me of limitations.

To live is to endure limits. While most are incontrovertible, others are self-imposed. Deciding between the two might be our life’s most important task, but if we are to overcome them we must willingly take chances and choose how we will live.

For most of my life I’ve erred on the side of caution. But lately I’ve been branching out into the unknown, and rethinking my writing and especially my photography. Some might call it a midlife crisis, and perhaps it is; we are often blind to our most obvious faults. I see it another way: I’ve always had second or third (or fifth) best in terms of equipment, but as my life shortens I’m determined to have, for once, the best. It’s extravagantly expensive, it’s outlandishly good, and it costs about the same as what the dentist wanted.

Teeth, or art? It was hardly a fair fight.

And yet I resisted. Part of me hated to go into debt, so I made myself promises that someday, perhaps next year or the next, I would complete my dream outfit with an ultrawide lens. I’d used one in New Mexico and found it essential for landscapes, but with winter coming I hesitated.

And found, on a trip to points west, the remains of a prairie town, and an old junkyard riddled with rusting hulks of a bygone era and gap-toothed buildings festooned with climbing ivy and the sempiternal sky laced with cirrus, and I found to my dismay that my widest lens wasn’t wide enough. For a moment I stood wedged between two vehicles trying to make my camera do the impossible, and then I packed away my equipment and drove home. The first thing I did after kissing my wife was to order the lens.

Teeth are important. So is health. And so is art, artistic vision and making every remaining minute count. To decide between them would require a Solomonic wisdom I patently do not possess. So, in my own imperfect way, I make my choices and live with them. After all, my teeth can wait a little longer. My art can’t.


Carol said...

You had fun with your words in writing this, and I had fun reading it...despite the bleak thoughts on health care. I vote with you and nurturing your artistic self – until the point when your teeth start to hurt. Then you WILL have some decisions to make! Hopefully, by then you’ll have all the camera equipment you’ll need. (Is that day possible?)
Think of the money you are saving, not using film!

Wes said...

I loved your article and could not agree more with your logic. I also found this year that my dentist and endodontic specialist wanted to perform a root canal and cap two teeth in the back of my mouth. It was going to cost me a grand total of $3400, and that was with insurance. I considered this, went to my oral surgeon, and asked how much to take them out. With insurance, it was $36.00 each. Much more palatable to my wallet, and how much would I really miss the two teeth in back? I had it done, I haven't missed them at all, and I and my wallet are much happier! Good luck with the new lens!!


Tom Parker said...

Carol -- It is, indeed, possible to have all the camera equipment anyone needs.If, that is, they buy the best. I'm fortunate to have an understanding, or at least forgiving, wife, and now I can focus on taking images and paying off the debt. Also, yes, thankfully I am no longer using film.

Wes -- Your tale proves that people need to take control of their own treatment and use common sense rather than attempting to enrich medical practitioners! As for the lens, I took it out to points west today and put it through the paces. More later.