On the other hand …

By From page A13 | June 02, 2013

My hands are a little sore this morning, something around the thumbs. But I’ve learned to talk back to them. “Stop it!,” I say and then I keep moving.

My relationship with my hands has changed dramatically in the last five years, a result of taking up the guitar. I pay attention to them in a way I never did before.

I can tell you, for example, that the highest knuckle of my ring finger on my left hand doesn’t bend as much as my other knuckles, which handicaps me when attempting a common chord like C. I’ve become angry at that finger hundreds of times.

It also has a tendency to bunch up with the fingers on either side of it, most commonly the pinkie. Where’s its independent spirit? Why won’t it break up with the other fingers? At age 66, isn’t it mature enough to separate?

Complaints like this, however, become trivial when I read that several famous guitar players were missing fingers, among them Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead who lost most of his right-hand middle finger in a childhood woodcutting accident.

His handicap is not the only kind. I am impressed by anyone with short or chubby fingers who plays the guitar well.

I don’t aspire to superior performance, but I would like to keep playing a long time. This pain in my thumbs is mild arthritis. Might it get worse?


I avoid dwelling on this by thinking about other aspects of hands, mine and those of other people. Here’s a sample of where my mind travels.

Recently I asked myself, “Would I recognize my own hands in a lineup?”

If someone photographed 12 hands of people similar in age and coloring to me, would I recognize my own? I think not, but perhaps a woman who is more into jewelry than I am could recognize her hands, even stripped of adornment.

How about other body parts?

Which ones do I know well enough to identify in an anonymous crowd? My feet? My belly button? My nose? What about small parts, like my eyelashes? What about things I never see head on, like my ears?

What if, instead of a lineup, I watched moving shadows? Could I pick out my own gait? My own paddle strokes? My own dance moves?

I could probably perform better identifying other people. I recognize the guitar-playing positions of my teacher and my music buddies. I recognize the way friends walk and the way they dance.

This came to mind recently when I saw a TV interview of the young man who managed to escape the Boston marathon bombers after they hijacked his car. During the interview, he chose to appear in shadow with his voice altered.

Do we have speech patterns that make us recognizable to each other, even if our voices have been mechanically changed? Can we be identified by the way we toss our heads? How about language, the words we use and the frequency with which we use them?

Did friends recognize this young Asian man despite his disguise? Did something give him away, perhaps a certain hand gesture?


It’s amazing to watch a baby learn to take control of his or her hands, as I’ve done recently with my young grandsons. First they learn to open their fists, then to swipe, then to pick things up and eventually to wave and point. Parents and grandparents make a big deal about these accomplishments.

But once a child masters basic hand control, how long and how much does he continue to improve? People who play instruments or sports constantly hone their motor skills. Do they also care more about touch? Do they develop a lifelong awareness of their hands?

For the rest of us, learning about hands shuts off at some age, until our hands speak up when they get arthritis or when their owner compels them to take up the guitar.

Perhaps we all have some body parts that we’re aware of and think about because they’re key in our sport, our work, our health or our romantic relationships, surrounded by a majority of other body parts to which we never give a second thought.

What we bring to consciousness about our bodies differs from person to person, an aspect of human individuality of which we are mostly unaware.

Do some of us think about breathing more? Swallowing? Kneeling? I’ve thought about all of these at least briefly, while experimenting with meditation, while taking bad tasting medicine, while visiting a Catholic church. I obsessed about my feet for years, wanting to suppress my duck gait in front of other people.

Do these concerns change over time?

I think so. Today I ask my hands, new friends, to stay fit as long as possible.

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]

Marion Franck

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