Archive for Sunday, March 25, 2001

Arthritis raises respect for thumbs

March 25, 2001


I made the mistake of staying up late one recent Saturday evening to watch Elton John on TV. He sang a great many songs, among them, one with the line, "How wonderful life is when you're in the world."

At the time that struck me as not only a beautiful but profound thought. Too many spend their lives on another planet in a state of illusion.

But when I woke up in the middle of the night with those words going round and round in my brain, they soon lost their charm. Like the chant of an idiot on a broken record, that line badgered me until I wanted to scream. The Hallelujah Chorus would soon become irksome under identical circumstances.

The only way I could drive it from my mind was to introduce the lyrics from another song. Unfortunately, the only one I could think of in that wee hour was "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top." I spent the rest of that fitfull night with chicks, ducks and geese scurrying through the barnyards of my dreams. For some reason, all their heads were off.

About the same time that I was losing my mind, disaster struck my thumb. That may seem like a minor inconvenience by comparison, but not so fast. Take a moment to consider the short, thick first digit of the human hand, also known as "pollex."

Where, I wonder, did the thumb acquire the ignoble image implied in the expression, "I'm all thumbs?" A person who is "all thumbs" is viewed as an oaf, a bungler, a stumblebum, the paragon of clumsiness. But it's well-known that the opposable thumb is a key to our species' evolutionary success.

Rather than being maladroit, someone "all thumbs" would be able to perform miracles of dexterity. He could affix an entire box of thumb tacks to some surface in the same time the average person could handle only one. The number of books he could thumb through in an hour would be astonishing.

Imagine the advantage a hitchhiker would enjoy if he were all thumbs. I doubt if he'd have to wait very long for a ride. And try to imagine a thumbless Roman emperor when it came time to decide some gladiator's fate. He'd have been laughed out of the Coliseum if he had to signal "pinky up" or "pinky down."

Of what use would a thumbscrew be to a torturer for wresting out confessions if it weren't for the existence of thumbs? The "green thumb," the "thumbnail sketch." How many wonders of the world are thumb-dependent?

These reflections are occasioned by the sudden appearance of arthritis in my thumb. This affliction has rendered all sorts of basic tasks painful writing, typing, the manipulation of chopsticks, shaking hands. Just try peeling a pearl onion without the use of your thumb. Believe me, I've had a cram course in the importance of this noble appendage.

It didn't come upon me slowly, either, with tiny increments of pain and loss of movement. I might have been able to get used to that. But it struck suddenly, irrevocably. The collapse of the NASDAQ, losses of the Jayhawk basketball team, these are ephemeral matters. I can deal with them. But arthritis of the thumb! That has the ring of mortality.

Funny ... I've always been able to deal with it philosophically when other people's mortality has been at stake. I've taken consolation in such words of wisdom as, "Death is the end of worldly sore." When war or natural disaster take the lives of thousands, I say, "How terrible," and then go about my life.

But when one's own mortality is in question , it turns out to be quite a different thing. This arthritis is mine. It has taken up residence and staked its claim in my thumb. I find myself waffling between denial and despair. Already, I'm beginning to weigh the odds on immortality or some sort of second chance.

If reincarnation is in the cards, I've decided that I would like to come back as a thumb or a creature who is "all thumbs." Of course, there'd be disadvantages, such as a loss of mobility. You'd have to scuttle along on your thumbs like a centipede. A brutal bi-ped could squash you without a second thought. And you'd be homely, with few prospects for finding a mate. But imagine the finite caresses you could offer another creature willing to overlook your looks.

When we want someone to know we're paying close attention, we say "I'm all ears." The connotation is positive. But a man who was literally all ears would look at least as ridiculous as one who was all thumbs. No, forget about Tom Thumb. The thumb is a giant. I'd rather have a thumb than a brain. Take away my ears. Give me back my thumb.

George Gurley is a Lawrence resident who writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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