By Ellen Jo Roberts
“Love bites. Love bleeds. It’s bringin’ me to my knees.” — Def Leppard
In our orally fixated culture, it is surprising people do not attack with their teeth more often.
We like to kiss, we like to consume, and we’re crazy for vampires. Inside our very faces are sharp and crushing weapons, though we are more inclined to utilize our fists, feet or brass knuckles in moments requiring defense. We only use our fangs to open packages.
In grade school, there was always some kid who liked to bite, and this kid was always the biggest freak of the class. You never forget that kid, or the sharp pain and the bruise of prints left on your arm, shocking you to your senses. After toddlerhood, biting people is considering a social defect, and discouraged. It’s savage behavior, best left to the animals and the insects.
Teeth carry much psychological baggage. We’re forever having crazy dreams about losing them, having them fall out in our hands, or dissolving into dust. Though we seldom use them to defend ourselves physically, they are still a source of power and prestige. People wear their teeth like jewelry, whitening them or capping them in precious metals or enamel. Blank spots are filled with bridges and dentures. We warn people to step back out of our grills.
Since even before I grew all of my permanent teeth, I’ve had tooth anxiety. When I was a child, my mom suffered a mishap, tripping over a portable doggie gate in a doorway. When she hit the ground, she sent all of her top front teeth flying out by the root, through her bottom lip. Luckily, ace periodontists were able to put all of her teeth back in and save them, though to this day she won’t eat corn off the cob, or bite into an apple. She always told us that if we were falling, we should brace ourselves with our arms or hands, since it was much easier to fix those broken bones than it was to rebuild our teeth.
I knocked a tooth out when I was six. It was a bike crash, riding my older cousin’s too big ten-speed. The actual crash itself was knocked from my memory as swiftly as my face hit the telephone pole. All that is remembered is the metallic taste of blood in my throat, the sound of my cousin running up the hill shouting my name, and some passerby picking me up, dusting me off, and helping me search through sidewalk debris for my tooth, now tangibly absent from my mouth. I never found the tooth. My dentist said I probably swallowed it on impact, and how lucky it was a baby tooth.
Like millions of American adolescents, once my permanent teeth arrived, I wore braces. Not only did I endure the braces, and hundreds of Saturday mornings staring at the orthodontist’s ceiling, I also suffered through a whole series of tortuous metal contraptions, including the dreaded “head gear.”
As an adult I’m lucky to have all of my teeth, including all four wisdom teeth. I never thought this was a big deal until I accompanied a Mexican girl to the dentist. Claudia was from Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border where she grew up on a coffee plantation. She’d never been to a dentist in her life, and was suffering tremendous pain from several abscesses. Very scared and speaking no English, she needed a translator, so I accompanied her while the dentist did his exam. Several teeth needed to be extracted and he began the process that day, deftly yanking out one by one. A tooth escaped his grasp and in an arc-like trajectory bounced off her white paper bib, leaving a red blot before hitting the floor. That very night I called my mother to thank her for taking us to the dentist all those years. I’d never fully appreciated it until that moment. I even thanked her for the dreaded headgear.
A love bite is what we call a hickey, a temporary neck tattoo identifying you as a teenager in love, hot and heavy. To see a hickey on a grown-up is really a bit pitiful. Even as a teenager it’s embarrassing. Lovers like to nibble on each other like candy. Mouth, lips and teeth are all exploited in advertising, to emphasize the ecstasy of flavors, sensations, beverages, wealth and beauty.
Bared teeth can represent danger, aggression, anger, or with the subtlest turn of the corners of the mouth, happiness. In some cultures, bearing teeth is considered impolite, improper, or overly informal.
Can you imagine how different a piece of art DaVinci’s Mona Lisa would be if she were showing us her pearly whites? In Latin American countries, a bribe is called a mordita, meaning a “small bite.” Everyone wants a little piece of the pie, including public officials and the police. Nom nom nom! The mouth chews, eats, and swallows. The teeth get stained with red wine, coffee, cigarettes.
Things disappear, including your money.
Animals bite. It’s both their appeal (watchdogs and the Discovery Channel) and our fear.
Sharks attack and kill surfers and seals with their many rows of sharp, ever-replenishing teeth.
Lions, tigers and bears all frighten us with the skilled wielding of their fangs. Though in North America it’s far more likely you’ll be bitten by a neighborhood dog than by an elusive big cat, or rare bear.
Photo by Frances Duncan
I have the cutest dog in the world. He’s traffic-stoppingly cute. Floyd is so good looking in fact, that similar to Hollywood starlets, he has become an absolute monster, a ferocious beast with a surly disposition. His cuteness is his curse. In order to protect himself from the constant throng of gawkers wanting to stroke his perfectly shaped noggin, he has cultivated a defense mechanism. He bites.
He will bite you. I’m very clear about it to any overly friendly stranger who approaches. The Chihuahua Bites. I really should just print up a t-shirt that says that, to save my breath. There’s a 100% chance of growls followed by a storm of teeth.
Before anyone writes me a letter telling me I should have my vicious beast “put down” (as someone once suggested), he’s no public hazard. He’s actually an obedience school graduate and completely well-behaved on every other level. You’re safe. Just as long as you don’t try to pet him.
The dog only stands about 1 foot tall, and weighs 5 ½ pounds, with tiny twig legs. “Five Pounds of Fury” is what we call him, but he’s not bloodthirsty and won’t aggressively charge you, unless you get too close or accidentally appear menacing. Also, I’d advise against approaching our house, or car. He’ll really go bananas trying to protect “his property.” There’s a reason I have a “Beware of Attack Chihuahua” sign on the front gate. Folks think it’s a joke. It is not!
If, even after the many prior warnings, you’re foolish enough to get down to his level and offer him your fingers, you probably deserve to be bit. A big football player guy we knew owned a Bull Mastiff, same age as Floyd, but 150 pounds bigger. Being a fan of big dogs, he always thought it silly how small Floyd was, and took great joy in teasing him into a frenzy, poking at him and poking at him, until finally we heard an incredulous “OW! The little [censored] bit me!” The thick-necked football player was cradling his crumpled hand, blood streaming.
Floyd looked up at us embarrassed and slightly relieved. His bitey behavior is a lingering anguish to me, since I am so friendly to everyone I meet, and yet my dog is exactly the opposite. In perhaps a bit of karmic payback, Floyd has lost more than half of his choppers, pulled by the vet during routine dental care due to typical small dog tooth defects. (He still has most of the important ones, though, so don’t try to sneak up on him just yet.) I wish I’d thought earlier to have them save all of those tiny teeth, so I could make them into a sharky necklace for Floyd to wear when he is an old man.
To his friends and the people he knows, he is sweet, frisky and lovable. He likes to run laps around shoulders and lick noses. One can transition from stranger to friend in Floyd’s eyes. It is possible to break on through to the other side, just by investing a little time and patience. I’ve seen people go from “I will rip your face off” to “Hooray! I love you!” in as little as a week. He’s a complicated dog full of deep emotions.
Despite his complexity with strange humans, he is wonderful with strange dogs. We joke he is a “dog ambassador,” as all canines love him instantly. Confident and approachable, he is always able to woo friendship from fellow pups. He’s even befriended some strange rodents, mules and cats.
Dogs’ mouths are relatively clean in comparison to humans, and house cats. Domesticated felines are among the worst when it comes to infection-prone bites, perhaps second only to the Gila Monster.
The desert Southwest is home to many sharp, barbed dangers that can chomp you: cactus, “goatheads” (a.k.a. puncture-vine), rattlers, and many venomous bugs. Technically insects don’t have teeth, but it doesn’t prevent them from issuing pesky bites to other living creatures. Bed bugs, fleas and mosquitoes survive on our blood. Arizona has some scary venomous arthropods, like the Black Widow, the Brown Recluse, and the lobster’s scariest cousin, the Scorpion. We’re unfortunate to be neighbors of the Hualapai Tiger, or “kissing bug” that lurks in the night causing frightful welts on many of my pals. My least favorite biting bug in Yavapai County, however, is the Cedar Gnat, or the No-See-Um. They get me every time, and I swell up in miserable blotches.
“This bites!” we might yell, or “Bite me!” Overall, despite the erotic nibbles of romance, getting bitten is considered not all that pleasant an experience. Our teeth fail us. They give us strange dreams. They crack, decay, fall loose. Even with their fragility they’re sometimes all that’s left of us at the end of the road. Everything else goes back to dust, but our bones and teeth remain as one last identifying marker of the person that once was. What kind of diet we had, how old we lived to be. How we looked when we smiled.
Happy Valentine’s Day to all of our loyal Noise readers!
Ellen Jo Roberts got toys from her childhood dentist, Dr, Marvin Berman.
She still has her favorite, a rubber pig named “Dr. Berman’s Pig.”
She lives in Clarkdale with a whole lot of toothy creatures.
Read all about it at http://www.ellenjo.com/