Listening to the Dentist Finally OR How I Became More Like My Dad
OK, "personal transformation" might be going too far. But it is about behavior change. And I should know all about behavior change because... well... behavior change is my professional specialty, and it has also been the bane of my existence my whole adult life. So when I see myself making a big change (like when I gave up Diet Coke in 1999 - which lasted until late 2003) I figure it is worthy of a story.
There are two parts to this story:
Part One: Do you remember when your dentist first told you to floss your teeth? I remember it well because it was a shock to me as a 20-something year-old that managing to brush your teeth twice-a-day wasn't enough of an effort to maintain your glossy whites. For about 10 years I outright dismissed the mild pressure to floss. Believe it or not, I've got a small mouth. It is not so easy to stick my hands in there, and I hate the feeling of bringing the floss back up out from between my teeth with a twang. It wasn't my thing, and I wasn't going to do it. But in my 30s, and particularly in recent years, the pressure to floss from my dental hygenist has become more like a moral plea from a Pentecostal minister.
Sinner, change your ways. Floss or you are going to hell!
Nevertheless, despite half-hearted efforts in the days immediately following a dental appointment, I never picked up the habit. I find better company among the flossing sinners than the saints who floss twice-a-day. (And in my old job there were always women in the ladies room at lunch flossing their teeth - which I found kind of gross in a public bathroom.)
Part Two: In the rest of the world, meat has copious amounts of fibrous strings. Most people don't really know about that in the US anymore because the meat we eat has been bio-engenered to be meaty and smooth. But everywhere else, you eat a piece of chicken and you get a lot of it stuck between your teeth. And if you eat beef... you could be picking at your teeth for days. Let's face it, even if you have long fingernails and no inhibitions about sticking your hands in your mouth to pick your teeth, you still need help getting the meat out. This is why God invented toothpicks. And toothpicks are present on every table here at restaurants fancy and cheap. Most people, mzingu (white folks) included, spend some amount of time with two or three toothpicks working out the pieces in the course of any given day. Unfortunately, there is a toothpick quality problem. The toothpicks here fall apart easily. And in fact, I had a toothpick splinter in my gum just two weeks ago. But in the end I was lucky and it worked itself out.
The Transformation: Today I can announce to you that I have found the mountain. I have flossed every single day since I arrived in Tanzania. It took a combination of fear of having to go to the dentist here (which I'm told I need to fly to Nairobi or Johannesburg to do instead of submitting myself to the local witch dentist) and the fact that every night, despite many minutes a day of picking my teeth with low quality toothpicks, I have a bounty of pieces of chicken, beef or whatever twanging satisfactorily out of my mouth. It just goes to prove that structural/environmental interventions work best for achieving behavior change. And in a strange way, this has brought me closer to my Dad, who has picked his teeth every day of his life much to the dismay of his family.
Dad, I get it now. Come visit me in Tanzania where you will be welcome (indeed encouraged) to pick your teeth as much as you'd like. Karibu sana.
And, if you are coming to visit me, I suggest you bring your own high-quality toothpicks - gum splinters suck.
PS I'm also working (in my head) on a blog about how totally annoyed I am with the field of public health and how I'd like to sock it to all the self-righteous health educators telling women they are terrible mothers destroying their children's future if they formula feed, and trying to make restaurants conform to their food ideals. I think they have gotten out-of-hand... empowered by their successes against smoking. Their attitude is just alienating the people they are trying to help. Screw them!