The Human Condition:

Wiggle My Fingers – January 22, 2023

Abstract eye

Have you ever thought about what a complex motion that is, wiggling your fingers?

The fingers don’t actually have any muscles to wiggle with. All the action is through tendons that pass across the palm and back of the hand, through the wrist, and up to small muscles, a pair for each finger—one for retraction, one for extension—in the forearm. And each of those muscles needs its own separate neural group in the brain’s motor strip, one for each hand in each hemisphere of the cerebral cortex.

That’s quite a lot of mechanism, and we use it in exquisite ways: typing on a keyboard, playing the piano, producing chords on the frets of a guitar and similar instruments, or finding just the right notes on a violin’s fingerboard, and drumming our fingers on the tabletop or arm of a chair when we are bored or nervous. We fiddle with our hair, and we wind or unwind a piece of floss or string. We use our fingers in a lot of ways.

But sometimes the nerves get crossed up. I noticed this recently when performing the third, or Naihanchin, kata in my karate practice. During this kata, there is a move where the practitioner steps across the body to the right and left sides while throwing an underhanded nukite, or open “spear hand,” palm-up across the body. To be performed correctly, the spear hand must have the fingers pressed together side-by-side and lead with the middle and two outside fingers, like the point of a spear or knife. But lately, when I do this move to the left, those three fingers twitch almost uncontrollably. Almost, because if I think about it, I can hold them steady. But if I don’t think, then they wiggle like eels.

I have also noticed that this almost uncontrolled twitching does not happen when I move to the right, or when I perform the spear hand in a forward thrust with the palm oriented vertically. It also doesn’t occur when I perform the same underhand move in the three opening side stances of the second kata, Seiuchin. Then my fingers remain pressed together and rigid, as they should, or sometimes slightly splayed apart—as the should not—but still stiff. It is only when bringing the hand across my body with the palm up in the third kata, stepping to the left, that the wiggle sets in.

This makes me think there must be something about the underhand move across the body while stepping to the left side that interferes with the nerves controlling those muscles in the forearm. It might be a binding in the neck, shoulder, or elbow. It might be a slight deterioration in the brain. If it were uncontrolled—that is, no effort on my part could keep them from wiggling—I would begin to worry. But for now I will accept that I need to focus my attention on that body part to keep it in line.

As I complete my 75th year—three quarters of a century, wow!—I begin to take note of such things. For about a decade, I haven’t been able to drop down onto one knee and pop back up, as required by several of the katas. I can no longer jump straight up from the floor and simultaneously fake with the right foot low, followed by a high kick with the left foot, before coming back down—as distinctly required in the fifth and sixth katas. (Truth to tell, that move became a hop-skip across the floor more than ten years ago.) Similarly, I keep track of the times I must grope for a word or a name, or the exact details of a memory—which doesn’t happen too often but is distressing when it does. And I sometimes have to take a step to the side, to regain my balance, when walking around a piece of furniture. Small lapses, bits of deterioration, but concerning.

Like all of us, I know that one day this marvelous “meat robot” that I am operating will finally cease moving. The heart will stop pumping, the lungs will no longer expand, and the nerves will begin to go silent. What happens then, I don’t know. Nothing, I expect. The same nothing that occupied this space and this mind before I was born. We are all ephemeral, all mortal, and that has been the human condition since we acquired conscious thought: our minds conceive of infinity and eternity; our body is fragile and finite. And that gives color to our existence.1

And we are none of us the deacon’s “Wonderful One-Hoss Shay” of the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem: made in such a particular way that it lasted one hundred years and a day—and then disintegrated into dust. No, through the wonders of evolution, stem cells, and a functioning immune system, we grow and build substance from the beginning and up until a certain period of our lives, and then that substance is gradually eroded; the pieces no longer fit; the center releases its hold; and whole thing wears away to nothingness.

Hell, it’s a job.

1. I recall a sign I saw in a Facebook meme, I think from a British tattoo shop: “You are a ghost driving a meat-covered skeleton made of stardust. What do you have to be afraid of?” And another quotation, it might have been from C.S. Lewis: “You are not a body that has a soul. You are a spirit that has a body.” And then again, from the Puppeteer explaining their racial cowardice to Louis Wu in one of Larry Niven’s “Known Space” novels about the Ringworld: “We know that we have no undying part.” I am neural-networked software driving electro-molecular and mechanical hardware—and all three phases are extinguishable.