Gene Weingarten is on vacation. This column originally ran in 2003.
A national women’s magazine recently asked me to write a story about cosmetic tooth-care products. Now, two questions might occur to you:
(1) Why would a magazine want me to write about cosmetic tooth-care products; and (2), why would a women’s magazine want me to write about anything?
These questions occurred to me, too, but I did not raise them because of a complicated journalistic principle involving the fact that the deal was $3 a word. If you are not a professional writer, you may not understand just how seductive “$3 a word” is. I will try to describe it in layman’s terms. Let’s say you were a garbageman, and you were offered $3 for every bag you picked up. You would begin by picking up as many bags of garbage as you could, and as quickly as you could, but you would soon start swiping pedestrians’ shopping bags, handbags, colostomy bags, whatever. My point is that $3 a word is generous.
Still, I knew that my style of writing might not be exactly appropriate for national women’s magazines, which tend to feature articles such as “Crying: Ten Strategies That Work!” So the first thing I did was to solemnly assure the editor that she’d made a wise choice, that even though I am a “guy,” I am not entirely without sophistication and can hold my own when it comes to understanding such things as beauty. Having thus reassured her, I hung up and proceeded to map out my reporting plan, which consisted of going to a hardware store.
Basically, I had decided I wasn’t going to do some dippy women’s-magazine-type survey of mouth-care professionals. I was going to behave in the time-honored male fashion of overdoing things — in a life-threatening fashion, if possible.
Which is how I came to find myself in my bathroom, looking at the mirror, holding to my mouth those little paint-sample strips I got at the hardware store, trying to decide what color my teeth were. This was to be the “before” comparison. Then I was going to go on a frantic, three-week binge of tooth whitening, using every available bleaching gel, cream and paste in quantities and frequencies not consistent with any sane regimen of oral hygiene. (The Washington Post lawyers have instructed me to say my regimen should never be followed by anyone who has not first taken the basic oral hygiene precaution of sending The Washington Post a notarized letter holding it harmless for any calamities up to and including winding up looking like a sock puppet.)
At my bathroom mirror, I started optimistically with Benjamin Moore “atrium white,” which was good for a laugh. Then I began lowering my expectations, moving glumly forward from the white shades through the off-whites and finally, alas, to the wan yellows. In the end I decided I was somewhere between Duron’s “downy duckling” and Benjamin Moore’s “old straw hat.” (I do not recommend this exercise, by the way, unless you are being paid $3 a word to do it. Even TV spokesmodel teeth will pale when held up against the unforgiving standards of interior latex semigloss.)
Three weeks later, I definitely had whiter teeth — all the way up to Benjamin Moore’s “creme brulee.” This came at a cost. Many of these whitening products warn that they might result in “increased tooth sensitivity” — and I can say that using this stuff day and night for three weeks exaggerates this effect. Afterward, you feel as though you are walking around wearing a retainer made of aluminum foil. You’ve got a painful smile. How painful? It’s an “Oh, good, your mother is coming to visit” smile.
I wasn’t surprised when my story was ultimately rejected. I really didn’t follow orders very well. Besides, I just know my editors at The Post will pick up the tab for this piece, which, at $3 a word, comes to ... $1,992.
Editor’s note: Fat chance, Gene.
Actually, now it’s $2,019.
E-mail Gene at firstname.lastname@example.org.