A bird in the hand? Flip it.

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.

(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on February 19, 2012. Chris’s next novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” arrives on July 17.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “A bird in the hand? Flip it.

  1. Laurie Paisley says:

    I think you need to stay out of the gym. Seems you’ve had a few accidents there before!! Can’t wait for this new novel….can’t wait!!!

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