Things You Take for Granted

Your right arm, for example. I had arthroscopic surgery on my right shoulder Monday — rotator cuff and labrum repair (I didn’t even know know I had a labrum) — and I’ve been moping about since with my arm in a sling and hooked up to a machine that circulates ice water around the traumatized bit of anatomy for 20 minutes every hour or so. Here’s a fun test: try tying your shoes with only your left hand. Or (assuming you are right-handed, as I am) try signing your name or using a fork. Your incapacity, I suspect, will be almost comical.

The nerve block I had Monday at about 11 a.m. lasted far longer than predicted: until 5 or 6 Tuesday night, which meant that I couldn’t move my arm and my thumb and first two fingers were all pins and needles and, beneath that, numb as a parboiled tenderloin. The upside of that situation was an absence of pain, which only arrived on the scene last night about bed time. (Another thing you take for granted: being able to sleep on your side: if you have shoulder surgery, be prepared to sleep — or try to sleep — on your back, your head and affect arm propped up by a few pillows.)

Pretending you’re Paul Wittgenstein is amusing for about 5 minutes. Then the tedium sets in. I typed a bunch of emails Monday evening and yesterday using only my left hand. Polonius’s observation that “brevity is the soul of wit” never seemed so forcefully pertinent. The sling is basically a 24/7 prescription, except for the morning shower. The surgeon has also given me permission to sit with the sling in my lap while I type, which, now that I can move the fingers of my right hand effectively, makes life with writing deadlines much easier to contemplate.

We’ll see whether the operation was worth it. Right now, of course, my arm feels far worse than when I presented myself to the sawbones’s ministrations. When I sat in the doctor’s office discussing the surgery he spoke airily of a “two to three week recovery.” Turns out that is only phase one. I have similar problems with my left shoulder but I suspect I will wait a good long while before embarking down this road again.

There are, however, salutary side effects of such incapacities, not least that sobering recognition I mentioned of things you take for granted: tying a shoe lace, buttoning your shirt, signing your name: it’s all so effortless when everything works as it should, nearly impossible when something goes wrong. What a stupendous thing it is, though, that most of us are such casual experts dispatching the complex tasks of everyday life. It’s irritating to be incapacitated, but really our chief emotion should be gratitude: gratitude for the quite extraordinary medical interventions we’ve concocted to say nothing of the general competence most of us enjoy in our circumnavigation of life’s little chores and obstacles. Aristotle defined man as “the rational animal.” I know what he meant. We homo sapiens sapiens are unique in our possession of self-conscious reflection. I’ve been struck, though, by the thought that “ungrateful animal” often seems to be a much more widely dispersed human characteristic than reason. I wonder what the old Stagirite would have to say about that.

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