Friday, September 14, 2018


The debilities that come with age are a humbling reminder of our human imperfections. Yesterday my right hand was so painful that I could type no more than a few words. Today, well... it's better.

When I write about such things I wonder how anyone could possibly be interested. Mulling that thought this morning--and realizing that so much of my writing has been about myself--I asked myself why I persist in this peculiar occupation. I have written about others, of course, over the years; I have written about art and artists, books and writers, poetry and film; I have written novels--whose main characters, I am forced to admit, have an uncanny resemblance to... myself! But mainly, looking back over all my work and all my publications, I have been my own main source of subject matter.

(I think with gratitude of those who chose this path ahead of me, from Michel de Montaigne to Jean-Jacques Rousseau to, more recently, say, Christopher Isherwood--a countryman whose books seduced me into writing at the earliest age...)

The answer to my question is a simple one: for me, writing is a way to discover more about what it means to be a human being and how best to live my life. The process of self examination, on matters as large as the experience of aging and as small as the little finger on my right hand gives me the opportunity to find out more about the one human being I can know the best--myself--and, by extension, about simply being human.

The next step, once I see, acknowledge and understand the origin of the imperfections--so many of them!--is to ask myself whether improvement is possible and, if so, then how to go about it; or if not, then how to accept the reality.

It is my right hand that now calls for my attention. Here's the story. For many years I have experienced a condition known as Dupuytren's Contracture--a condition I share improbably with both Ronald Reagan and Samuel Beckett, among others, whereby small knots of tissue gather under the skin of the hand and gradually pull a finger (or fingers) in toward the palm. (The condition is named after Guillaume Dupuytren, a military surgeon who distinguished himself for all eternity by treating Napoleon's hemmorrhoids, and was also the first to surgically remove the contractures named after him). Several years ago I had the contractures on my left hand surgically removed--successfully as it turned out: they have not returned.

They did return, however, more recently, on my right hand. If you have shaken my hand recently you may have noticed how the little finger can slip embarrassingly inside the grasp of the person I am shaking hands with, with a resulting sensation that is strange and unsettling--to me, and I suspect also to my partner in this social ritual. This physical anomaly is not painful, but it has been growing more pronounced in recent months, and has been the source of uncomfortable distraction.

But that's not what took me to the doctor. What took me to the doctor was the sudden, alarmingly painful escalation of an arthritic thumb on the same right hand. It was so painful, one night a couple of weeks ago, that I was unable to sleep. Very sensibly, I took it to the doctor the next day--I was fortunate to get a same-day appointment with my regular physician--who gave me a shot and advised me to consult with a Kaiser orthopedic surgeon who specializes in the hand.

The shot was great. Whatever is was--some kind anesthetic/steroid mix, as I understood it--worked a miracle. The pain disappeared overnight! And a week later I saw the orthopedic surgeon. He was not optimistic about dealing with the arthritis but--back to that other part of my story--he did think it was time to deal with the Dupuytrens. I now have to make a date for surgery.

But the arthritic pain did not return at first. It seemed to have been taken care of with the shot, until... was it the pliers I was using to twist the picture wire with which I attached a hook to hold a new hummingbird feeder in place? The clippers, to cut off the wire to the required length? I don't know, I can think of no other reason, but a couple of nights ago I was back in agony. My hand was reduced to a painful, non-functioning claw. When dawn came, mercifully, I found that I could not stir my morning tea, nor squeeze the little plastic eye-drop bottle that I use to wake my eyes up from their sleep. Worse, I could not even type more than a few words--a dire situation for a writer.

And then, within a day or so, happily, it was gone again. I sit here two days later typing merrily, with only a ghost of the pain in my right thumb. Two-handed once again.

So what do I learn? That certain conditions can be treated with surgery? Others can't? That my right hand is a part of myself that I can ill-afford to lose, being right-handed, and being a writer? That, should I lose it, I would need to detach from that particular identity, which would in itself involve some considerable pain--and some accommodation. I wonder if I would feel the need to find some other identity to replace one I have lived with for so long? Or... that pain--even severe pain--comes and goes, and asks to be heard and respected before it leaves? That it is sorely tempting to accede to its imperious demands for attention, but that I do better with it if I choose to put it in its place? A reminder that pain is unavoidable, but suffering optional?

All kinds of useful things to learn, then, even from the most minor of our afflictions. And--again for a writer--there is always that extra gift: a story to be told.

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