Ice Breaker: These Hands

One morning I went to pick up a pen to do the crossword and I couldn’t. This was definitely not in my head.

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These look like good, strong hands. They are now, and I’m more mindful of that than I once was.

My mother, a child of immigrants, was raised on a farm in northern Ontario. She taught me everything she could about running a household. I learned the cycle of tending a food garden from turning the soil as soon as the ground was tillable to putting the plot to bed after harvest. Keeping the lawn trimmed, the trees and bushes in shape, feeding the birds. Feeding the family with cooking, baking, and preserving. I learned to wash laundry by hand and with a wringer machine, use the clothesline and the electric dryer prudently, iron my father’s shirts, sew, and darn. Clothing repair was important when you had to make things last. Knitting never did take — fine motor control has always been a minor challenge for me, in part because I’m left handed — but I could crochet large and complex pieces, from blankets to hats and sweaters. I helped look after the babies Mum took in for working mothers: soothing, teaching, feeding, diapers (cloth, of course, with all the attendant care). Daily, weekly, and seasonal cleaning. How and where to beat a rug. I didn’t milk a cow or churn butter until I was eight or nine years old on a school field trip, but I was still proud that I was among the best in my class when the task was set me.

My father, a traveling salesman whose parents had settled in the cosmopolitan city of Toronto, saw I was determined to learn everything and taught me another side of managing things. We worked on the house and the car together. I changed the oil and tires on the family car, and read up on how to do other maintenance work like brakes and checking the spark plugs. I could build and mend a fence before I could write in cursive. Plumbing and electrical work, with the advice that you should always get someone with a ticket to check your work if you could afford it. Diagnosis and repairs to anything that happened to need it, from changing the furnace filter to replacing a fuse or a stove element. When I helped insulate the attic, I enjoyed carrying the heavy bundles of fluffy insulation but the itchy fibreglass particles got under my shirt and made me miserable.

In elementary school, there was the Canada Fitness Award, a program that rewarded students certificates and patches depending on how well you did in a series of fitness tests. I didn’t get the top award the first year. I worked hard and eventually earned the Award of Excellence. I think that if you say “flexed arm hang” to people of my generation who went to school in Canada, you’d get a groan back in response. It was the most gruelling test, holding yourself precisely at eye level from a high bar. I could do it, and I was proud of how strong I was.

As I grew older, more and more of my energy was channelled into the intellectual disciplines. By the time I was in Grade XI I didn’t bother trying out for the gymnastics team: I wasn’t allowed to compete even at the school level on pommel horse and rings. Besides, I was more interested in English, French, Music, Science, Math, and the PDP 8 computer we got on loan from the school board for half the year. The first programs I wrote for class used mark sense cards and had to be sent away downtown to be run. In the Math Club we could use a keyboard on the mainframe and on the Radio Shack computer my math teacher brought in to school. I was more interested in reading, understanding, and modifying the code behind games than playing the games.

I earned a scholarship to university. I divided my time among the radio station, the library, the science labs, the campus pub, and the computer centre. Working for the computer centre covered all my expenses that weren’t picked up by scholarships. I played baseball with some of the physics grad students in the summer, but most of my time and effort had shifted from working with my hands in strength-building ways to writing longhand and hours on end typing at a keyboard.

After university, my first jobs were programming. I was happily putting in forty, fifty hours a week sitting at a keyboard or scribbling on printouts, writing code, debugging, maintaining, documenting, filing and responding to bug reports. I was so content with what I was doing that I barely noticed all the things I wasn’t doing. I was earning enough money that I could pay for meals that someone else cooked, bread someone else baked, new clothes instead of mending my own when they became worn, a professional to fix things that broke.

Moving ahead a few years, I found myself doing work I loved for a boss who was proud of being — to use a more polite term than Doug would — a big jerk. I had to carry myself particularly professionally around him to avoid the worst of the sexual harassment, but working for Doug gave me great opportunities to write and manage large, complex systems. I spent even more time with my code, because I was passionate about my work and being busy would keep me from spending too much time near Doug. I also, through a series of what I see in hindsight were bad decisions, wound up living with another … jerk. Spending long hours at work was a welcome escape from having to deal with him, and I had online social groups like MUDs and Usenet, text-based ways of interacting with other people around the world. I have friends from those days who are still friends today; some of them I still haven’t met face to face.

Nothing could keep me away from the keyboard, but there were changes in other areas of my life. I stopped playing guitar because I wasn’t practicing enough and my left hand sometimes felt fuzzy when I tried to play more than a few songs. I put down the vest I was crocheting for my daughter when my fingers started to get clumsy. I reluctantly mentioned the odd feelings in my hand to my housemate. He was dismissive, as usual: it’s all in my head, nothing to bother going to a doctor about.

One morning I went to pick up a pen to do the crossword and I couldn’t. This was definitely not in my head. I called my boss and also called my family doctor, who saw me that morning. Doctor Hicks asked me some questions about the numbness, ran a couple of simple tests and told me it was a classic case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. He looked at my hands and pointed out how the muscles had wasted away to hollows where there should be thick meaty pads. We started on a treatment plan that would take almost a year, involving physiotherapy, anti-inflammatories, diagnostic tests, and eventually … not surgery, since the tests indicated I was not a good candidate for the release procedure.

At work, I began using Dragon Naturally Speaking and ViaVoice, two speech to text programs, instead of typing. I cheated a little, but mostly I stuck with it. I had good reason to, if I wanted to ever use my hands normally again. I worked with my boss to come up with modified duties that involved writing and editing more English text using voice recognition software and almost no programming, more meetings and projects and less time on my own, more teaching and less doing. I took advantage of the change to train in project management and people leadership — things I’d been told I was not fit for, though I showed a clear aptitude and strong ability once I started.

My hands recovered, and I eventually got a job where I supervised technical staff as well as doing technical work, for a boss who was much less of a jerk. I realized a lot of what I’d been told were my own limitations were not a true reflection of my capabilities and grew back some of my withered self esteem. It wasn’t easy, but I left the jerk I’d been living with and started enjoying more interactions with friends, including one I later married. I was annoyed with the managers at my workplace who had kept me from reaching my potential. I was angry at the person I’d lived with who had kept me from paying attention to my physical and emotional health. Most of all, I was ashamed of the person who had a hard time meeting my gaze in the mirror every day for staying in a situation that was damaging to my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health for so long. I was the biggest jerk of all for not taking care of myself.

These days, I have well entrenched habits of self care. I work out every day, on top of walking almost everywhere I can and doing specific wrist and arm exercises. I aim to accomplish something challenging every day. I am conscious of how we all affect each other so I make it a point to be deliberate, thoughtful, present, and kind as much as I can. As the Doctor says, always be kind.

These are good, strong hands. This is a good, strong mind. And as much as I can make it, I have a good, strong heart. I’m taking care of myself and making the world as good a place as I know how.

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