Small Differences: Dentistry

There are two stereotypes about teeth that we all know: Americans have big, wide mouthed smiles; British people have wonky teeth.  Studies show that there is no real difference in oral health and hygiene between Britain and America but the perception of vastly different aesthetics remains.

I have lived in America for almost four years now and still every time I visit the dentist for a check up I imagine the dentist recoiling in horror when I open my mouth and reveal my ever so British teeth.  Truth be told, my teeth are pretty skew-whiff even by British standards – perfectly healthy but very crowded and crooked.  Compared to my American peers, however, they are a complete and utter mess.  The first time the dental nurse at our American practice looked in my mouth, she asked me if I was British or Russian.  It was that obvious that my mouth was not tended to by American dentists.  I never felt self-conscious about my teeth back home in Scotland but here in America I most definitely do.  Cosmetically pristine teeth are clearly valued here and mine don’t pass muster.  I may have made it to the age of 41 and have only one filling but that doesn’t mitigate against the visual mayhem of my mouth.

I think the key to the different dental experiences may be in a different approach between the two cultures.  I cannot compare US dentistry to private dental care in the UK because I have never been to a private dentist.  For the five years when I malingered on the waiting list of an National Health Service dentist, I never had an oral emergency that compelled me to seek out a dentist and pay private fees for the privilege.  Throughout my childhood and all but those five years of my adulthood in Britain, I was treated on the NHS.  This means my dental treatment was heavily subsidised (great for the budget) but it also means that the appointments were pretty perfunctory.  In contrast, my US appointments last for an interminable amount of time even though all I am having is a check up and routine cleaning.  The hygienist actually performs the bulk of the treatment.  This involves lots of ponderous poking and prodding and then a professional cleaning that lasts so long I have to stave off panic attacks.  Only after that marathon is completed does the dentist appear to look over any xrays and give my gob a final, brief once over.

Every single time I go to my check up, either the hygienist or the dentist – and sometimes both – will comment on the overcrowding in my mouth.  It is as if they find it grimly fascinating to contemplate the abyss that is my British mouth.  My teeth are not straight, they overlap, and my lower wisdom teeth came in at right angles to my other molars (though to be fair my UK dentists always found that weird too).  Even the dental hygienist, an expert flosser, has occasionally trapped a piece of floss between my teeth because there is so little space between them.  When I first moved here, the inevitable follow up question was whether I had ever considered orthodontistry.  You can probably imagine their looks of surprise when I tell them that I had a mouth full of metal for almost six of my teenage years.  I don’t think they can comprehend that the mangled mouth they see wide open before them actually represents an improvement on what was there before.  I decline each time the subject is raised.  I have lived with my wonky teeth for enough decades now that I can just accept that this is how they are.  I have endured braces for enough years of my life and don’t need a redux.  Besides, I have to shell out a whole heap of dollars on my kids’ orthodontisty.

Sadly, yes, at least two of my children have inherited my British mouth.  Apparently I have a tiny jaw, especially the mandible, and I have transmitted that “defect” to two of my offspring.  My 10 year old is already in braces because, aside from the crowding, he also had a dramatic crossbite, and my youngest will start orthodontic treatment as soon as he has a couple more adult teeth.  In addition to all of the metal and wire work in his mouth, it has been mentioned that my 10 year old may need to have some teeth pulled to create space and will need a palate expander.  That aspect of the treatment diverges from my experience of having orthodontisry in 1980s and early ’90s Scotland.  I had no teeth pulled and certainly didn’t have my palate expanded which, therefore, means that no extra space was ever created in my apparently minuscule jaw for the relocated teeth to move into.  So, while the six years worth of metalwork pulled everything into line, as soon as all of those devices were removed, my teeth simply began to drift back – especially once my wisdom teeth came in when I was in my mid-20s.

Even with very good dental insurance, the out of pocket cost for the orthodontistry is a major expense.  Multiplied by two kids, that expense becomes eye wateringly winceable.  They need the treatment for physical reasons, not just cosmetic ones, but I also think it is important to their self-esteem that they have winning smiles that fit in here rather than having my experience of people looking quizzically at teeth that look like collapsed tombstones in a long abandoned cemetery.  I am, therefore, going to stick with my awfully British teeth so that my children’s mouths can evolve to become more American.

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From Surviving to Thriving

Today marks exactly three years since my four children and I stepped off a plane from Britain to join my husband and their father and embark on a new life in America.  Three years is a weird way-marker because in some ways it feels like we have not been here that long and in other ways it feels like we are way more established here than we would be after a mere three years.  We are inbetweeners.

Looking back, I think the first year of life here was very much about just surviving.  Back then I was so focused on getting through each day and each new challenge that I could not distance myself enough to have adequate perspective to recognise that we were just surviving.  I was just putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes stumbling, but mostly moving forwards.  However, so much has happened in these first three years that have helped us put down roots and start to feel settled here.  We bought a house – which was a massive deal for starting to “belong” – and everyone got settled into rhythms and routines, adjusted to new schools and work places, made new friends, developed new traditions to meld with the old ones we imported from Scotland, passed driving tests, and the children officially became American citizens.  Now I alone am the only Green Card holder, the only alien.

All of these things mean that we are well out of survival territory.  But nor are we quite thriving here yet or at least not in every area of life.  The transition takes far, far longer than one could ever anticipate.  It’s a long journey.  And there are road bumps.  And tolls.  And wrong turns that need to be corrected.  We are still moving towards the same fixed destination but it is just taking a bit longer than we expected.  So, to mix my metaphors, we are in this weird No Man’s Land between Surviving and Thriving.

Long time readers might recall my Lego nightmare and how it became a metaphor for our immigration experience.  I am happy to report that most of the Lego sets have now been rebuilt and are displayed on shelves and played with regularly.  However, there are a few sets left to build and there are some that are going to be extremely challenging to rebuild because it seems that some critical pieces are missing.  We will get there with the Lego and with the feeling of being settled enough to thrive.

Lemonade Stand

This Labour Day weekend, my four boys got to experience an American tradition: running a lemonade stand.  They suggested the idea and we supported it.  This was not something they would have experienced back home in Scotland so we were keen to let them do something that their born-and-bred American peers have probably done.

They made a gallon of lemonade from scratch, all taking turns at squeezing the juice from the lemons using the citrus reamer.  I think they liked how aggressive they were getting to be with a kitchen utensil.  I am given to understand now that actually the American tradition for lemonade stands is to use a powder mix as the base of the drink but never mind.  They had never made lemonade from scratch before so that just added to the joy of it all being a new experience.  I also baked chocolate brownies for them to sell.

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We left them to come up with the promotional posters and to decide on things like the price points.  We provided them with a float and showed them how to set out their income and expenditure accounts, a basic version of course, and then it was time for them to set up their stall.  A Saturday of a holiday weekend and with a storm predicted was always going to be slow going so I used the modern grapevine – Facebook – to send a message around the neighbourhood that they had set up stall and were selling freshly squeezed lemonade and brownies.  What was lovely was that so many neighbours stopped by to give them some support and encouragement, financial and verbal, but they also got some passing trade from cars driving through the neighbourhood and from our mail man.

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It was, however, still pretty slow going and so they learned something about the boredom involved in certain retail ventures, about handling a rush period alongside stretches of inactivity, and finally about the math of determining profit.  They actually made a surprising amount for a couple of hours of work and were quite pleased with their earnings.  I think they had hoped to rake in much more, however, so it will be interesting to see if they wish to repeat the exercise next summer and – if so – what they might do differently.  It was fun to see them experiencing something new about America, something that is a tradition for many American families, but I mostly enjoyed seeing them work cooperatively as a team and having to interact with other people without having we adults hovering as a crutch.  I like to think they have learned some life skills from the whole experience.  They also got to eat lots of leftover brownies.

Lego as a Metaphor for Immigration

In the Summer of 2013, when we knew for sure that we were going to be emigrating from Scotland to the US, I had to go through the process of selling, donating and ditching loads of our possessions and packing up what we were keeping in order to prepare it to be shipped across the Atlantic.  One of the more tedious jobs I did was to spend an entire day packing up my sons’ very many Lego sets.  I took each set in turn, broke it down into individual bricks and pieces, placed those bricks into ziplock bags, and labelled each bag according to the information on the building instruction manuals.  It was the perfect job for a control freak mother like me but goodness it was laborious and my thumbs were throbbing by the end of the day.  Still, all the effort was worth it as it meant all those Lego sets could be safely transported across the ocean, taking up as little space as possible, and could be easily rebuilt set by set once we were settled in Pennsylvania.

That was the plan for the Lego.  It was also the plan for us.

We were packing up our lives in Scotland, breaking things down into fragments, compartmentalising, putting things in order, imposing a system on the chaos.  I assumed there would be a difficult transition period, a settling in phase full of stress and glitches and the odd set back, a need to feel our way through the jumble just like all those loose bricks jumbled in their labelled bags.  But we would be rebuilding a new life on another shore, piecing it all back together again in no time at all.  Lickety split.  Tickety boo.

That’s not how it turned out with our transition period.  It’s not how it happened with the Lego.

Not long after our shipping container finally arrived, a visiting child took it upon himself to rummage around in all the plastic storage crates full of toys.  One such crate contained all of the ziploc bags of Lego.  The child opened up every single one of those ziploc bags, about 50 in total, and emptied them all out onto the floor.  My kids were incandescent.  I felt bereft.  And stressed.  And overwhelmed.  A full day’s worth of work, my attempts to impose order on the chaos, to make rebuilding easy and fun, were all completely and utterly undermined.  All my hopes for an easy rebuilding project were dashed.  I looked at that Lego all over the floor, thousands of bricks in a tangle of mess, and I felt deflated.

Settling in and establishing our lives in a new country did not go to plan either.  There were big things I expected to be much more trying but which were pleasingly easier than anticipated; however, there were other things that proved much more difficult to navigate, things we did not anticipate.  We had been focusing so much on the challenges of living in a new country that we overlooked the challenges born of changes to our family dynamic, the schedule and shape of our everyday lives.

That transition period has still not concluded over two years into life in America.  We are really only starting to come to grips with everything immigration has involved now.  I had to be gentle with myself, accept that things were going to be rocky for a while, that we would stumble a bit, and give myself permission to feel frustrated and annoyed and stressed and anxious.  I had to give myself the gift of more time.

Likewise, I left those Lego sets for a while.  My kids played with the few we had already built and the rest of the bricks languished in a huge storage crate waiting for me to feel ready to tackle it.  It was too stressful to contemplate rebuilding from that scale of chaos.  I had to gift myself more time.  A few months ago, I decided to tackle the issue.  I decided that I would organise the bricks differently, there being no possible way to recreate my first approach.  I made up a bag of red bricks, a bag of blue bricks,a bag of barrel shaped pieces, a bags of wheels ….It took me a couple of days but gradually order was imposed on the chaos.  It still takes us a lot longer to rebuild a set since we have to look at each instruction and rake through the bags to find the right piece but at least now we are only looking in the bag of small grey bricks to find the required small brick rather than raking through the entire huge tub, a lego needle in a haystack.  The new approach is working.  We are rebuilding the Lego sets again.  Progress is being made.

I had to change my expectations, develop a new approach to problems, and accept that it is going to be a gradual and slow process.  For Lego.  For immigration.

 

Holiday Traditions

One week into December and our holiday traditions are underway.  Despite not being Christians, we celebrate a secular version of Christmas as both Mr Pict and I were brought up with Christmas and wanted to keep those traditions going when we had kids of our own.  Of course, some of the traditions we had back in Britain have had to be mothballed since we emigrated to America.  Pantomimes, for instance, do happen here but are far too expensive for us to attend so no more pantomimes for us for the time being.  We have, however, started new traditions since moving here.  It seems those are already ingrained since the kids were determined that we were going to do the exact same things this year that we have done before.

First among these was the Holiday Light Show at Shady Brook Farm.  We first went in 2013 for our first American Christmas and then again last year.  I offered a suggestion that we do something different this year, another light show even, but the kids shot my suggestions down.  They want repetition and tradition.  So off to Shady Brook Farm we went.  I think the kids like that we drive through all the illuminations, cosy in the car, not having to wander around in the chill night.  They had fun seeing old favourites among the lights and spotting some new additions.  Then we parked up and got out to see the tree and buy some kettle corn and visit the farm shop.  The place was jam packed with people, however, so we didn’t stay too long.

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December also means the return of advent traditions to help the kids count down to Christmas Day.  We have a small wooden chest full of drawers that gets open every day plus a Playmobil advent calendar, both traditions we have had since the kids were tiny wee, but now we also have Noel, our Elf on the Shelf.  Now there is a tradition I regret starting.  We don’t do the whole “magical” bit.  The kids know fine well it is me who moves the Elf each night and they know that the Elf is not reporting back to Santa.  For them, finding Noel each morning is just a fun wee treasure hunt.  They look forward to seeing what Elf s up to, either some kind of antics or else a message for them regarding a festive activity.  All harmless fun except that I have to remember to move the ruddy Elf every evening.  Already, a mere week in, I have had to get back out of bed in order to go and move him somewhere, having been jolted out of the land of Nod by the sudden remembrance that Noel is exactly where he was the 24 hours before.  I am also struggling to be very creative with him.  Some people do these amazingly elaborate set ups with their Elves.  Not me.  I just hide Noel somewhere.  If I do a set up, it’s usually something that makes the kids chuckle rather than create magic.  Noel pooped chocolate into a jar the other day.  On the first day, he was found under the Christmas tree with a bottle of liqueur.  That was just as well since I failed to move him that night and I had the excuse of an Elf hangover for why he hadn’t moved.

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One day, Noel the Elf was found with a gingerbread house ready to be decorated.  I once baked a gingerbread house from scratch but I had a conniption trying to get the walls to stick together with icing and it ended up looking like a total hovel.  I discovered prefabricated gingerbread houses when we emigrated and, therefore, they can become part of our family’s holiday traditions without me losing the plot.  The three younger boys had a lot of sticky fun decorating the house and eating the surplus construction supplies.

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We decorated the house for Christmas right after Thanksgiving.  Mr Pict would rather wait until later into December but all the hassle involved in decorating makes me want to have it last for a good few weeks, more return for my investment.  I don’t go overboard.  We don’t decorate the exterior of the house.  Yet.  Mr Pict wants to get stuff for outside but I don’t know that I could deal with the additional hassle.  Bah humbug.  Sorting out the twinkly lights for the Christmas tree was quite enough stress, thanks very much.  It was worth it though: the formal living room has a lovely glow to it now.

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The sweetest thing, however, is that my 6 and 8 year old boys made their own advent calendar.  Playing outside in the garden one evening, they gathered up 12 rocks and decorated them with a sharpie in order to depict the Twelve Days of Christmas.  They then brought it indoors and arranged it on the kitchen floor as a surprise.  Which it was.  A delightful surprise.  I do love it when my kids are creative, experience a spark of inspiration.  We now have the rocks arranged on the windowsill.  Just to add to the cuteness, my youngest keeps singing that the third day is “three henchmen”.  I am now changing the lyrics in our household.  That’s another new holiday tradition.

Advent Stones

 

 

Nessie, Haggis and Royal Babies

Today marks two years since the kids and I emigrated to America.  In some ways it seems like not that much time has passed (such as when we met up with friends in Lochgilphead in July and it felt like we had only been gone for weeks) but in many ways it feels like ages ago, not quite part of another lifetime but not far off.  For example, we bought our house just over a year ago but already it feels comfortably like home, as if we have lived in it for years.  I reread my first year immigration anniversary post and realised that a lot of what I wrote then still stands now so settling is clearly a slow and gradual process for me; but I am definitely more comfortable with things than I was this time last year.  Things that were initially unsettling, discombobulating, strange, alien and stressful have now largely settled into the rhythm and groove of everyday normality with the occasional panicked peak of being a stranger in a strange land.

From the very first, my Scottisness has been a talking point.  A week has yet to pass without people commenting on my accent, always complimentary, usually an exclamation of, “I love your accent!”  Often that is where the conversation on my accent ends but sometimes I am asked where I am from and that prompts further conversation.  Some of these can be quite peculiar.

Last Winter I fell into conversation with a chap who heard my accent and enquired if I was Irish.

Man: That’s not a Philly accent.
Me: Well spotted.
Man: My family are Irish.
Me: That’s cool. I’m not Irish though; I’m Scottish.
Man: Yeah, my grandparents came over in their 20s.
Me: Uh huh.
Man: So where in Ireland?
Me: Sorry?
Man: Where in Ireland are you from?
Me: I’m not. I’m from Scotland.
Man: Oh. It’s just that you sound a lot like Sean Connery.
Me: Sean Connery is also not Irish. He is also Scottish. Like me.
Man: Cool.

It is perplexing the number of times I have had the “I am not Irish” conversation.  I think more people guess I am Irish than guess accurately that I am a Scot.  I sometimes also get New Zealander and South African.  I think people just hear accented English and plump for an English speaking nation.  I had assumed that Americans would be much better at placing accents given there is such a diversity of accents and dialects in the various regions of the US but apparently not.

When people do know I am Scottish, all sorts of bizarre small talk can ensue.  One of my favourites was when, not long after moving to America, I was asked at the supermarket checkout, “Do you believe?”  I was desperately confused by the question.  Having had a lot of strangers ask me what religion I was since my arrival, my first thought was that I was being asked about faith.  But why would someone be asking me about religion while beeping my groceries?  I must have looked dim for long enough that the checkout lady offered a follow up, “Do you believe in the Loch Ness Monster?”  Oh!  Much easier to answer.  She looked quite crestfallen when I replied, “I believe Nessie is good for tourism”.  Did she really think I was going to reveal that I had been given a private audience with the beastie?  That was not the only time I have been asked about Nessie but it was certainly the oddest.

Haggis is another topic of conversation.  I think Britain still has a reputation for terrible food (which is unfair – you can find wonderful and wretched food wherever you are in the world) and the very notion that someone might eat the heart and lungs of a sheep all chopped up and stuffed in its bladder is barf-inducing to some and the idea that such a recipe would become a national dish is truly mystifying.  But, of course, many nation’s have a simple peasant dish to serve as their national dish.  It is just the fact that Scotland’s is a whole bunch of innards that captures the imagination I suppose.  Mostly people just want to know why.  Why?  Why would anyone eat such a thing?  Just why?  I can then take the conversation along a historic or gastronomic track.  The former involves explaining a bit about crofting practices and the economic need to use every part of an animal and the latter involves explaining that haggis is actually very tasty, thanks to the mixture of oatmeal and spices – though, of course, since I don’t eat meat I only eat vegetarian haggis.  I managed to horrify my son’s class when they thought I was going to make them eat haggis.

The expansion of the British royal family has led to two periods since my immigration in which people have asked my opinion about royal babies.  I don’t tend to have opinions about babies, whether royal or serf or anything in between.  People also tended to approach the subject obliquely and without any context so that I again found myself in a state of befuddlement.  “What do you think of the baby?”  I was asked, again at a supermarket checkout.  I asked what baby and was met with the reply, “Baby George?”  I still had nothing.  Was this some TV programme the checkout person assumed I watched.  “Prince George?”  Oh.  The penny dropped.  It’s always nice when people who want a baby have one.  That’s pretty much my sole opinion on the matter.  And, of course, it was repeated when Prince George’s little sister was born a few months ago.  I was quicker on the uptake with that conversation starter though.  I get asked about the Queen a lot too.  And Downton Abbey.  I think many people think the two are related.

The popularity of the Outlander series of books and the subsequent TV show is also something people ask me about a lot when they identify my accent.  They always look disappointed in me when I confess that I have neither read the books or seen the TV show.  Before I had ever heard of the books, I fell into conversation with an older lady in our library once because she heard my accent and wanted to know what I thought of them.  She looked downright affronted when I told her I had no idea what she was referring to.  She looked like she thought I should be stripped of my Scottish identity.  Then it emerged that some of the teachers at my sons’ Elementary School were obsessed with the books – totally obsessed – so they would ask me about all sorts of things to do with Scotland.  One asked me to email her photos I had taken of Scottish castles and was over the moon when I did so.

Ever so often, someone will hear my Scottish burr and will engage me in conversation about travel to Scotland.  It might be that they want to share their experience of visiting the country and tell me how much they loved it there, despite the weather, or it might be that they are planning a trip there and want some personal recommendations.  That’s always fun.  I think Scotland is one of the most beautiful, historically rich and culturally interesting countries in the world and I am happy to be an Ambassador – though I don’t forget to mention rain and midgies.

I welcome all of these little interactions about my Scottish accent and identity.  I like being Scottish so I am happy to chat about it.  The reaction people have is overwhelmingly positive too which is a welcoming feeling, especially at times when I might be feeling a little alien and adrift.  I am quite happy to be “different” and my difference sometimes prompts people to be very helpful and make suggestions as to places to go, things to see and do.  Indeed in the two years that I have lived in Pennsylvania, the only anti-immigration sentiment I have experienced directly was from a man, whose surname I noted was Italian, who felt it appropriate to tell me that people like me were coming over here and making the economy worse because we were stealing all of the jobs that proper Americans should have.  Sigh.

As a final note on Scottish accents in an American context, as my kids accents and vocabulary are drifting into the Mid-Atlantic, they have become much more conscious of my accent.  “You are just SO Scottish!” they proclaim.  I find that quite comforting.

 

Selkie

When life gives you lemons sit back and enjoy a margarita.  My response to this week’s Life Book lesson went messily wrong but I kept going and enjoyed the creative process regardless.

The lesson was taken by Jill Berry and was about using tissue paper and acrylic gel skins as materials in collage.  The process of creating the skins looked fantastic in the instructional video and I felt very inspired.  The fault was absolutely not in the instructions, which were very clear and looked fairly straightforward; the fault was definitely down to user error.  As soon as I started to peel the skins, I knew it had all gone horribly wrong: instead of coming off in nice sheets, the paint was stretching like elastic and snapping off into little fragments which then had a tendency to clump up and stick together.  Beyond frustrating.  But what to do with the utter mess I had created?

With no time in which to make new acrylic skins, I decided to just embark on the collage regardless.  Lemons into lemonade, right?  I had painted deli paper to incorporate into the collage too so I started laying down scraps of torn deli paper and the fragments of acrylic paint all over the watercolour paper.  My vision for the piece had been an owl soaring across a dusk sky but my piece was becoming far too “textural” for that to be a feasible plan.  I looked at all my black, blue, purple and silver collage materials and decided that a choppy sea would work.  Upon settling on that idea, I immediately decided upon making a painting of a selkie.  A selkie is a creature in Scottish and Irish folklore that lives as a seal in the sea and then transforms into human form on land.  A sort of wereseal.  I think I got the idea from my 8 year old who created some selkie art a couple of weeks ago.

The ugly phase lasted a long time for this piece but I determined not to give up and just keep ploughing onwards, making the best I could out of my flawed materials.  I added spatter to the piece not just because I love spatter but because it helped unify all the little scraps of deli paper and dried paint and I think it did make it more coherent.  I am not sure how well it shows up in the photographs but the texture of the piece is actually quite interesting and is certainly different for me and there are lots of metallic and sparkling elements which hopefully contributes to the magical aspect of the selkie.

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I don’t think I snatched success from the jaws of failure but I also don’t think this piece is a disaster either.  It might be a while before I try making acrylic skins again though.

Now where’s that margarita?