“It’s all about perspective.” Those words have fallen from my lips countless times. I have spoken them with empathic conviction to clients. I have used the phrase as shamelessly as an itinerant salesman, intent on wheedling and cajoling my audience to purchase my perspective. I have poured them heartfelt, wrapped in hugs, upon my children’s heartaches, wounds and injuries. I have baked them into treats for despairing friends. I have decorated my world with enchanting visual reminders thereof. I have whispered them fiercely to myself, pulling back from the precipice of tempting temper tantrums.
In prison, those words are better worn than any pocket worry stone. I thumb them with survivalist dedication. Here one can creatively apply perspective to the most mundane of experiences. Take, for instance, a flossing of one’s teeth.
“In my real life” (as I now refer to my pre-incarceration days), I could have articulated a few distinct perspectives on the use of dental floss. My initial and most frequent—a necessary evil: dentist prescribed, and gum-surgery reinforced, tool of gum health and overall dental hygiene; a tedious nightly ritual, adhered to with fear-motivated persistence. Skipped, perhaps, while on vacation.
A second real-life perspective on flossing is that of a blissful source of relief. The relief-sighing cessation of fruitless tonguing at a popcorn kernel hull embedded at the gum line. The “I can’t wait to get home” solution to fingernails’ inadequate attempt to dislodge dinner’s molar-deposited detritus. Those helpful moments served as perspective counterpoint to dreaded hygiene chore.
Finally, there would have been the dental floss as duct-tape-esque repair solution. I have witnessed it used to sew holes in duffel bags and backpacks, based on the belief it can take more of a beating than thread. My oldest’s much abused vehicle sports a passenger seatbelt, inexplicably severed, dental floss repaired. These off-label uses, while ridicule inspiring, definitely expanded my dental floss perspective.
Never before, however, would I have labeled it a forbidden and sought after luxury. For reasons obscured within the bureaucratic regulatory haze, dental floss, in my current home, is VERBOTEN. Perhaps misguided by concerns of potential suicidal hanging risk, or an ill-informed conception of dental floss converted to a garrote. Regardless of the murky rationale, floss cannot be ordered through commissary or obtained from medical, even with documented dental need.
Jail speedily informs precisely how accurate it is, that necessity and deprivation are mothers of invention. Within my first week in jail, I was educated in the extraction of clothing threads for the purpose of flossing.
At face value, pulling a thread from the seam of ones t-shirt or from a dilapidated holey-toed sock for periodic flossing sounds harmless. However, in the incarcerated realm, any object that is altered of used for something other than its original purpose is technically considered “contraband.” Possession of, or use of, contraband exposes one to disciplinary action. I am highly motivated to avoid any and all negative attention from prison authorities. It is certainly true that not every CO would bother with paperwork for such a minor infraction. Nonetheless, it is officially a rule violation.
Therefore, flossing my teeth is now infrequent and furtive. I carefully choose the conditions under which I now fulfill my “real life” dentist’s mandate. I know the officers who enforce the letter of the law, those who are concerned solely with safety-threatening violations, and those for whom rule-enforcement is mood dependent. In the (relative) privacy of my cell I can time officer rounds nearly subconsciously, and easily hear approaching boot steps. Trial and error has taught me that sock threads are the most effective strands of floss currently available.
The constrictions on flossing have morphed that once dreaded chore into an anticipated treat. I relish the sensation of stimulated gums and attendant belief that I am at least partially successful in my dental health endeavors. I long for the day when I can floss as often as I choose, sans surreptitiousness. I wonder how long upon my return to “real life” I will retain this newfound appreciation. Most importantly, I hope that I will not soon forget this stringy reminder of the power of perspective.