I am not especially accident-prone, but last month I broke my finger and mangled one side of it when I was putting away dumbbells at the gym. Yup: I was putting them away. Each one was 60 pounds and somehow I managed to get my right middle finger in between them or between one of them and the rack. It happened fast, as all dumb — and dumbbell — accidents do. One minute I was dropping the weights back onto the metal platform, and the next I was running my finger under the stream from the ice water fountain and trying to decide which expletives were suitable for a Wednesday afternoon at the gym. The finger looked like zombie lunchmeat.
So, for the last few weeks, my most prominent feature has been the way I am — and here’s a euphemism since this is a family newspaper and I’m a polite guy — flipping everybody I see the bird. The finger has either been swaddled and taped in gauze, or swaddled and taped and splinted. Either way, it makes for a great first impression, especially in a season with presidential primaries, political debates, and a State of the Union address. I have been everyone’s straight line.
Fortunately, I am not a surgeon or a concert pianist. So, for me — like for most people — a broken finger isn’t a big deal. I am, however, right-handed, and so it has been a tad inconvenient. I have always been a klutz (exhibit A, crunching my fingers between dumbbells), and so trying to do most things with my left hand has meant a whole lot of salad in my lap and a whole lot of nicks when I shaved. It has meant that I have to be a wee bit more careful when I slide my right arm through a sleeve, since it is usually those right fingers that lead the way.
But here is what I found most interesting the first two weeks after the accident: Because I had to do things slowly and methodically, I was, in some cases, weirdly competent. A perfect example would be the mornings when I would start a fire in the woodstove. Prior to breaking my finger, I would throw some newspaper and kindling into the bottom of the stove and then cavalierly toss in some logs. Some mornings it would ignite quickly, but other mornings I would have to rearrange the pyre until I got it right. With only my left hand, however, I found myself meticulously building a pyramid with long strips of newspaper I took the time to rip, carefully scattered tinder, and small logs positioned to allow plenty of air to circulate. Every single fire I built with only my left hand started easily. And while it took longer to construct them, in the long run it probably took less time than some of the blazes I would start when I had both hands and was far more casual in my design.
Moreover, I found myself unusually serene as I moved more slowly through the world. To begin with, I could no longer multitask: I couldn’t, for instance, talk to my editor or my agent on the phone while loading the dishwasher. It was one or the other because I had but one hand. And that, in turn, meant that I couldn’t do as much. And with diminished expectations came an unexpected tranquility, not the frustration I had anticipated. I let things go and, much to my surprise, the sun still rose.
In addition, I had to get over my profound germ-o-phobia. I have always been a manic hand-washer, surgically scrubbing my fingers before allowing them anywhere near my face. (I would bathe in antibacterial hand gel if I could squeeze enough into my bathtub.) But I could not get my broken right finger wet, except when I cleaned the wound, and so I had to get over my fear of cold germs and other flesh-eating microbial contagions.
Now, would I break my finger again to learn these lessons? Uh, no. But it has been nice to flip the bird at some of my sillier habits.