These Things Happen.
It starts, like so many things, with a small crack.
Early in my twenties, after years of neglect and the cruelties of genetic inheritance (but mostly neglect), I noticed that a molar in the back of my mouth had a crack. I didn’t remember breaking it; there was no popcorn kernel I could attribute my bad luck to, no hard candy that I could recall assaulting this odd, protruding bone in the back of my head that I rarely ever thought about and certainly didn’t brush often or thorough enough.
Being underemployed and un-or-underinsured is something that conditions you in ruthless and effective ways. In your twenties, you’re young enough to still feel invincible, but old enough to suspect that might not turn out to be true forever. You forego the meager health insurance your employer grudgingly offers you at great cost, because it doesn’t cover much, and if you’re lucky enough to have dental insurance, it might cover a cavity or a cleaning. You’ll get around to it, until you don’t. These things happen; at first, they happen slowly, until they happen very quickly.
I think I was thirty-five before I learned how to eat.
In the 1980s and the 1990s, back when I had two parents, America didn’t encourage the kind of culinary exploration that’s made household names of people like Ina Garten, Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmerman and many, many others of varying intellectual, culinary and entertainment value. Hell, America wasn’t even really the kind of place that encouraged Guy Fieri’s culinary exploitation and curiosity. The few American cities that did encourage this kind of personal growth were far away from the peculiar intersection of the Midwest and the Old South that Oklahoma inhabits. Fine Art was something I could at least read a book about. Who reads a book about food?
My hard-working parents weren’t great cooks, though, like most Americans of their generation, my mother could make a good sauce and my father could man a grill. But in general, “eating” and “cooking” were “things you have to do”, like brushing your teeth or cleaning your room or mowing the lawn. We weren’t a reliably consistent dinner table family, something that I find overrated even today. We were your average, working/middle-class middle-American family. I’m not sure that I’ve ever eaten a fresh cut of fish (or an un-breaded one) in my parents’ home. We ate Velveeta Shells and Cheese, and Salisbury Steaks, individually-packaged and reheated on a cookie sheet or in the microwave. When we were lucky, and when we were lazy, we’d order pizza.
These things happen; at first, they happen slowly, until they happen very quickly.
In my twenties, my diet began to change. It was a gradual thing that I’m not sure I was even aware at first. You pass on the crunchy taco and opt for the burrito. You skip the salad and stick to the soup. When no one’s looking, you cut your food into small pieces, or, if you’re in a bind, you tear it apart with your hands. You have a drink or two before you sit down to eat dinner, and on the bad days, your drinks become your dinner. By the time I was around twenty-five, the crack in that molar had become a broken molar, and he (or she, or they, I suppose – I assume teeth can be gender fluid) had plenty of company.
It’s an odd thing to be fully aware of your teeth – which are such a constant presence in your speech, and in your daily patterns, but that you never think about until you’re forced. There’s a creeping Cronenbergian horror at the thought of parts of you literally dying and rotting, and being awake and alive and conscious of it all the while. I taught myself how to eat overcooked pasta, and spent an entire year eating almost nothing else. I learned how to meet friends for dinner too early or too late to order, and smiled (lips drawn tight) about my unfortunate timing. I appreciated the days that there my mouthwash came out light pink, rather than a more familiar red. These things happen; at first, they happen slowly, until they happen very quickly.
Dental pain is a kind of exquisite, extraordinary pain. It’s physical, of course, but it’s also existential. You can wake up feeling fine, and some small thing – one grain of salt or a bit of lettuce or a poor, humble apple – ruins the whole goddamned day. At times, it’s darkly funny; one little rock of kosher salt laid badly across a bare nerve can bring the entire machine to a crashing halt. Because you’re so desperate to escape it, you chuckle at silly thoughts like a single grain of rice dressed as Jack, felling you, the beanstalk. You drink more often and more heavily. You keep smoking, because, well, why not? You save up those Vicodins and Percocets and even the Ibuprofen 800s for the moments when you really need them. Everything in your world starts to fade a little, except pain, which shines through in bright red. If you let this go long enough, the dull, average, everyday pain is great, because the alternative is the sharp, intense pain that blurs out the world and everything good within it. You spend more time alone, because performative pain and anguish isn’t appealing to you, except when it is. These things happen; at first, they happen slowly, until they happen very quickly.
I think I was probably around 30 when I first saw Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. I spent a lot of my twenties in a blur of overwork, bad decisions, intoxication and pain, and I’ve come to learn that I missed a lot of pop culture, so I’m not sure I was ever aware of the buzz around Kitchen Confidential. But, as someone who’d spent time traveling domestic and abroad for work, I became interested in seeing the kinds of experiences I had through someone else’s eyes, someone whose sensibilities I shared, at least in part. At last! Someone who had actually worked for a living was the face in front of the camera in some distant place I’d never seen! Someone who listened to The Ramones and the Dead Boys was exploring Vietnam or Thailand or Mexico, but not from a resort, and not from a table of honor at some restaurant the average resident was too poor to step foot in. Someone who drank, and smoked, and swore, and who deeply valued wisdom and compassion and experience, but wasn’t above a dirty joke. I was never a regular viewer; my television habits have always been fits and starts. But I always admired and was engaged by Bourdain’s genuinely novel approach to visiting the far-flung corners of the world like a normal person, rather than a television person.
A Different Stage of Decay
Around 35, I entered a very different stage of decay. By this point in my life, I had more broken or damaged or rotting teeth than healthy ones. All those broken mini-bones become jagged shards that keep you mindful of your tongue, in more ways than one. You stop caring, really, about how things look, because how you feel is exponentially worse. Your mouthwash now comes out red, always. There’s a grotesque and fascinating horror involved in pushing your tongue against a dying tooth, and wondering how much pressure it would take to push it out. It becomes less fascinating (and more grotesque) when you discover the answer. Eating goes from being something you have to do to being something you’d like to do. Functional alcoholism becomes a thing, because without the latter, you can’t accomplish the former. These things happen; at first, they happen slowly, until they happen very quickly.
Eventually, I worked up the courage to confront the demons in my head. Through a long, painful, and extraordinarily expensive process, I gradually began removing these demons from my head, one by one. I had a first-name relationship with the receptionist in my dentist’s office. I left a water bottle there, and they called me to let me know. I (mostly) stopped flinching every time my dentist wanted to open me up and poke around. I stuck with it, even when it was hard, because – no matter what – the alternative was worse. I have half a mouth of teeth missing now, and another half that needs to come out, sooner rather than later, though that will have to wait, because in this barbaric country, counting pennies is more important than counting teeth. But I have no doubt that taking action, when I did, saved my life, and made it worth living. I learned to eat, properly, like every human should have the opportunity to. My world came back into full color, most of the time, and the bright red I’d gotten so familiar with beat a retreat to the back of my brain again, because I had the resources and the opportunity to cage it.
Not everyone has those resources, and not everyone has that opportunity, and that, in itself, in a country this wealthy, is an unspeakable moral failure. Depression is worse, because even the right resources and the perfect opportunities might not save you from it. It’s a pain that also dims the world, except for the parts that are painted a bright and unmistakable red. There’s no doctor that can excise those demons. The best you can hope for is to keep them caged, and even the very best of us will fail at that, sometimes. Frequently, we don’t get happy endings; the best you can hope for is that the story is worth telling. Good food, and diverse experiences, and close friends and beloved family (who are often one in the same) make those stories worth telling, and, as a lover of stories, I genuinely appreciate the kinds of stories Anthony Bourdain wanted to tell. I wish he’d have told more, but the best stories, like the best meals, always come to an end, and in dark times, I think it’s better to value what you have had, rather than miss what you won’t. None of us are making it through all of this alive, so you may as well eat, drink and be merry while you can, for as long as you can. For the best of us, that’s never going to seem long enough, and the worst of us seem to go on forever. Ask for help when you need it, and, maybe more importantly, offer help when you can give it. It’s a hard, beautiful, cruel, lovely, crushing, wonderful world out there, and you will need help sometimes, and the people you love will need your help.