I give you the humble finger

“Behold the hands, how they promise, conjure, appeal, menace, pray, supplicate, refuse, beckon, interrogate, admire, confess, cringe, instruct, command, mock and what not besides, with a variation and multiplication of variation which makes the tongue envious.”

 So reflected Michel de Montaigne, Renaissance essayist. Hands have always fascinated me, ergo these words he penned more than 400 years ago reached out and grabbed me. These starfish-like appendages – with their mottles, lumps, splotches and elaborate lattices of lines and veins – are the maps of one’s life, much as eyes are the windows of one’s soul.

four joints

My 4-jointed pinkie.

I always notice people’s hands. I make up stories about the individual’s vocation and avocations based on what they tell me. I know it’s a leap to make unambiguous assumptions about people from their hands, but still I wonder about the anxiety of someone with chewed, ragged cuticles. Lean, sinewy fingers and I imagine thousands of hours of piano practice. Soft, uncallused hands? Paper jockey. “Horny-handed sons of toil?” Sweaty, manual labour. Super sleuth Sherlock Holmes deduced much from observing hands: “By a persons’ fingernails… by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb… by each of these things an individual’s calling is revealed.” Elementary, really.

Revulsion rather than fascination describes my visceral response to stained fingers and cracked, dirty fingernails; I avoid physical contact with filthy fists. If my job required me to shake hands with the rabble all day – say the Queen of England – my reign wouldn’t have lasted an hour. It’s hard to get close to one’s subjects wearing a Hazmat suit. In my defense, I’m in abundant company when it comes to high standards for hand hygiene: according to a survey commissioned by dating site Match.com, grimy fingernails are a universal turn-off and a mood-killer for romance.

A contemplation of hands isn’t complete without mentioning the bizarre Donald Trump. Almost 30 years ago, Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair magazine, described him as a “short-fingered vulgarian.” This description drove thin-skinned Trump – the man who thinks nothing of insulting just about everybody while basking in his own warped and arrogant self-image – crazy. While he was stumping for the Republican presidential nomination, rival Mario Rubio deliberately resurfaced the tender topic, mocking The Donald’s small hands. Stung, Trump affirmed, “I guarantee you there is no problem” – in obvious reference to the size of his er, alter-ego. “Normal, strong. Good size. Great. Fine. Slightly large actually,” insists the GOP presidential nominee. Shudder.

curved finger


As for my hands, they have been mitts of imperfection since birth: I came screaming into this world flawless in my biased parents’ eyes but armed with “bonuses”: I have four joints in one baby finger and five in the other. My mom was the genetic code-holder there; she too, had a four-jointed digit. These anomalous baby fingers have mutinous minds of their own, with the gravitational tendency to willfully point the opposite direction to their sister fingers. The five-jointed finger boasts an extra tendon so it curves like a toucan’s beak. (Great for shadow puppets.) I know what you’re thinking… I want one!



There’s more: I can bend every knuckle on both hands backwards at a 45-degree angle. They’re Gumby-flexible. I’ve taken fiendish delight in watching friends recoil as I arrange my fingers into awkward, twisted contortions. As a kid I was quite chuffed with my unusual pretzel fingers, imagining that one day I’d be approached by a circus scout (there is such a thing, right?) and asked to be a star attraction. In that fantasy, I’d be on the marquee, alongside the Bearded Lady and Three Headed Pig. I was convinced people would pay a hefty sum to see “The Astounding Digit Midget” perform amazing finger jockey stunts. I told my parents that when I grew up I wanted to join the circus. They told me I couldn’t do both.

When I was seven or eight years old, I took piano lessons from a nun at a nearby Catholic school; I lasted about a month. A cheerless sort, Sister Stella Marie was remarkably unsympathetic to my wonky fingers and repeatedly rapped my disobedient, wandering knuckles with a wooden stick. (With that unfortunate exposure to women of the cloister in my impressionable youth, the first time I saw “The Sound of Music,” I rooted for the Baroness.)

Like every other part of my anatomy, the passing years have taken a toll on my hands. Those hyper-flexible joints aren’t nearly as pliant and my some of my knuckles show signs of advancing osteoarthritis.

And there’s this: a couple weeks ago I met a new client for the first time. We were making eye contact and small talk as we gripped each other’s hand for a hearty shake. In that brief moment we were clutching, though, I was aware of something just not quite right. I glanced quickly at his right hand as he pulled it away from mine and that’s when I noticed the curled fingers. His fourth and baby fingers were bent inwards towards his palm, frozen in a distorted knot. “Ah,” I thought. “Dupuytren’s Contracture.” An easy diagnosis: I have it.

This peculiar hand deformity has slowly – and with the unwavering resolve of a homeless person who refuses to uproot from tent city – assumed squatter’s rights. Dupuytren’s Contracture affects the layer of tissue under the skin of the palm. woman writing in journalA tough knot develops and creates a thick cord of tissue that eventually contracts and pulls one or more fingers into a bowed position. It’s painless, benign, unsightly and has essentially ended my hope of joining George Costanza* on the hand-modelling circuit. My fingers have yet to crimp as severely as my client’s, but I’m aware that’s a potential eventuality.

But until my fingers curl up to the point I can’t type any more – and even if that happens, I’ll deploy the slow but trusty hunt-and-peck method – these fingers will continue to assail the keyboard. I have a long lifeline, so I’m betting on a lot more stories to tell through these hands.

(*A Seinfeld reference for non-fans of the show.)


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4 Comments on “I give you the humble finger

  1. That second finger makes me think of a turtle looking for it’s shell! Both my brother and my dad had Dupuytren’s Contracture, so I guess it may be genetic. Odd affliction. Even back in the day my dad had the ‘procedure’ that unwound his left hand back to almost normal. Thank goodness it doesn’t run on the female side of the family. We have enough weirdness going on there without it.

    • I read that Dupuytren’s Contracture usually shows up in men (nope), heavy drinkers (not really) and people of Scottish descent (there must be some haggis and bagpipes in my genes, I guess.)

  2. Just the other day, as I was putting my usual rings on my fingers, I saw my Mom’s hands. The skin around the knuckles a little thinner and more pronounced. The backs of my hands have veins protruding and “age” spots. Unremarkable fingers really, and yet I put on those two rings, and my digits magically transported me back to a time when I would watch my Mom’s hands reading a book, mashing potatoes or pinning the hem on a new dress she just sewed for me. I love that her rings give me such fond memories. I love that I have her fingers.

    • I love your story, Andrea. My hands are a hybrid of my mom’s and my dad’s – reminders of both of them. I wouldn’t trade my wonky fingers and double-jointed digits for anything!