10
May
06

Our Hands, Ourselves

I like to watch people’s hands while standing in the subway. During the morning and evening commutes, when the trains are crowded and people are standing and grasping at anything solid to keep their balance, hands are so exposed. Sometimes all I can see of a person is his or her hand.

Some bite their fingernails; others take exceptional care of their tips. They are brown and beige and pink and sallow and white. Some have spots. Some have finely formed ropes of veins down the arm, around the wrists and across the back of the hand. Some have hairy knuckles. Some with a firm grip show sinews and tendons straining against the skin. Some are fat and shapeless. Some are so thin, it’s a wonder they function at all.

There is a paradox about hands: While they are indeed exposed and open and very public, they are also extremely private and personal and intimate. Almost everything we do both privately and publicly involves hands. Why are we so skittish about genitalia and breasts when it is our hands that prepare our food, burp our babies, wipe our asses, wash our bodies, insert and remove our contact lenses, wear our wedding rings?

If the brain is the largest sex organ, surely the hand is the second largest. Indeed, sometimes sex involves the hands more than any other body part.

You put your hands where? And then you touched me? the doorknob? your french fries?

Of course, we wash them. And for the ultimate in OCD behavior, we can also waterlessly sanitize them. So, I’m not talking about dirt or germs here, but rather the idea of what we do with our hands.

We write with our hands, conducting our fears, memories and desires — and things much more banal — from the brain to the page. Some talk with their hands, expressing themselves with complete languages but without a single word. We construct with our hands: buildings, art, Web sites. We destroy with our hands.

We play with our hands — piano, rugby. A friend of mine, who does both, and who works on a laptop computer all day long, recently broke the smallest phalange of his ring finger. All the things he does that matter have become exercises in endurance, so central are his hands to his life.

We are defined by our hands. When that thumb showed up millions of years ago, everything changed. Forget fire, the wheel, moveable type, cheese in a can. The revolutionary hand started this whole crazy mess.

It’s kind of obscene, the way we so shamelessly expose people to our hands, given all the trouble they get up to. We should wear gloves.

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