Friday, October 10, 2008

I've lost my grip...

For some time in the late 80's I worked at a factory that made imitation velour cloth. To make that cloth, they took long thin threads, cut them, dyed them, and attached them to cloth. My job there was to take the dyed and cut fibers and dry them in this huge machine. Once I had the machine running, I mostly stood at the end and filled bags with the fibers (called "flock").

The finished bags weighed between 50 and 120 pounds each and I had to grab, lift and shake each one a few times to settle the contents so all the flock would fit. I worked 12 hour shifts, six days a week for about six months. I filled a bag about every 4 minutes when I was running, which was about two thirds of the time. So I filled a lot of bags. Every bag got lifted and shook, and by the time I was done, my hands were huge.

In high school, I was not an athlete or a lady’s man; I skipped football for theater and avoided confrontation in high school. I even got beat up once at the bus stop.

But after I graduated I got these huge hands, and every now and then, I would pull something apart or grab something and someone (sometimes even a girl!) would say “Wow, you’ve got big hands!” They made me feel badass. They made me feel competent, strong and invincible. I learned how to use them to protect myself, to keep myself safe.

One day, they started to hurt. They hurt when I was working in the yard. They hurt when I had to pull on a rope or dig in the dirt. One time I couldn’t extend my middle finger on my right hand for an hour. They would lose sensitivity and I’d drop stuff. They would ache. When I rewired the house, they got worse. I couldn’t turn a screw or bend wire for more than a few minutes without resting my hands. I had to connect one wire then do something else for a minute to rest my hands, then do the other wire. In what I thought was the ultimate disgrace, I had to ask my 22 year old neighbor to take a fence down for me. I just couldn't pull the nails out.

There are no real rituals anymore that define us as adults, or as men. I never had children and I'm not married, and those are about the only ways you can signal to the world that you are an adult; that you are a man. But for me my hands were a sign, they made me different from the kid who got beat up at the bus stop, they were my power, my wisdom and my story. They defined me.

Or so I thought. The people I work with don't know about my hands. I have no reason to demonstrate their power, but they see me as an adult anyway. Not because of what I can do with my hands, but because of how I act and what I say. I had been in a panic, wondering how I would live with these weak hands, how I would succeed without them, but their usefulness was lost long ago. No one really cares how strong my hands are. It might change people's ideas about me if they knew, but not very much. My history is long enough now that any power or wisdom I have comes from what I know, from my life. I can do more with that than I can with strong hands.

Turns out I will probably get my hands back. I most likely have carpal tunnel syndrome, and that accounts for all my symptoms. My doctor and I are working on that. I will be glad to have them again, and will feel safer and more confident if they come back 100%, but now I know I have other power, other ways to stand up for myself. I have the rest of me.

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