Cool Hand Don
From the Series: HandsOn: Touching the Digital Planet
One winter a few years ago, in Cape Town, South Africa, the fingers on both my hands started to suddenly go numb. It was cold in the house I was renting—dwellings in South Africa generally lack heat, partly because people there like to tell themselves that the winter doesn’t last very long (only three months!), and partly because housing standards throughout the country are derived from those of its former colonizers, Britain, whose inhabitants only recently discovered central heating, and where people still think that when you say “double glazing” you must be talking about doughnuts.
In true British style, it was colder inside the house than it was outside—and outside was a soggy, woeful 10°C. The only way to warm up was to take hot baths. I spent a lot of time in the bathtub. But the constant, raw chill that permeated the house like a fog eventually seeped through my pores, and one day I noticed that it literally began draining the blood from my fingers.
Without warning, my fingers—first my right index finger, then, oddly, all the fingers on my left hand— turned from rosy-pink to pale yellow. They became waxen, corpselike. Then the remaining fingers on my right hand went. When I tried to type on my computer, I felt like the Holly Hunter character at the end of The Piano, whose severed finger stump is extended by a little prothesis fashioned from wood, or maybe metal. I sat forlornly plunking on my laptop keyboard with digits that all felt like they were made of timber. It hurt, in a padded, muted sort of way. Since then, I have been diagnosed with something called Raynaud’s syndrome. It isn’t uncommon, and it isn’t particularly serious. But it is deeply uncomfortable, and I pay much more attention to my hands these days. They are insistent, and they nag, in ways they never have before.
It could be worse. Dr. Google explains that in addition to fingers, other body parts that can be affected by Raynaud’s syndrome include ears, toes, knees, nose, and—horror of horrors—nipples. All those other appendages and sensitive little protuberances currently are untouched, I’m happy to report, but who knows what the future may hold. There isn’t much one can do when one has the syndrome. I was sent to a clinic that specialized in Raynaud’s and was told that I might want to consider buying battery-powered gloves with tiny electrical wires that warm up the fingers. I have a collection of them now. I was also given a prescription for nitroglycerin, which I always thought was an ingredient in dynamite, and which I knew from watching films like The Little Foxes was a heart medicine that used to be prescribed in Hollywood movies. My campy self still thrills at the scene in that film where an elaborately bouffanted Bette Davis sits impassively in a big chair as her husband, whom she has just announced she despises, has a heart attack and pleads with her to go upstairs get his heart medicine. She ignores him. He dies. The nitroglycerin I was given was in cream form. It was white and greasy and smelled like a hospital.
As it became clear to me that my fingers, from then on, inevitably would become emptied of life and turned into aching stumps whenever I wound up anywhere where the temperature falls below about 13°C, I found myself frequently humming the chorus to Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi: “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Before I acquired zombie digits, I hadn’t much considered what useful things fingers are. They really are marvelous appendages—they grasp, hold, touch, feel, explore, poke, prod, type, and scratch. That said, though, I also realize that one doesn’t really need them. These days there are lots of different aids that allow people to live satisfying and independent lives without fingers, hands, or even arms. I regularly receive beautifully illustrated Christmas, Easter, summer, and autumn cards from an organization called Mun och Fotmålarna (Mouth and Foot Painters) because one year I paid for a set of Christmas cards they sent, unsolicited. I only paid that one time because who sends Christmas cards anymore? And who ever sent Easter cards, or summer or autumn cards? Nevertheless, even though no money goes, the cards still keep coming. I always take a moment to admire the effort and skill of the mouths and feet that created them before I put them away in a drawer.
Sometimes I get a tiny frisson of perverse pleasure when a friend glimpses my waxen digits and draws back in dismay. I know, I always say, isn’t it horrible? Other than facilitating a few murmurs of pity though, the entertainment value of my frozen fingers is negligible. Mostly they just feel benumbed. They have, however, prompted an existential realization, namely that I do not want to end my days living in a cold climate. During my years of living in Sweden, I have compiled a collection of reasons why one should not grow old there. All of them have to do with the weather. Winter in Sweden starts in October and doesn’t end until mid-May. Each year in March, everybody gets hopeful that spring is imminent, probably because everybody is delusional from sheer exhaustion at somehow having already managed to survive five months of frigid weather and never-ending darkness. But spring never arrives until two and a half months later. Which means that sensation in my poor fingers comes and goes—mostly it goes—for at least eight months of the year.
Whenever I am able to feel them, my digits these days are often put to eager work searching the Internet for affordable places to live in warm countries like Portugal. Or Tahiti. The crisp, hopeful aphorism “The future is in your hands,” for me since Raynaud’s, has taken on a whole new meaning.