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August 10, 2002
page 26

On Page 26 of this week’s New York Times Magazine is one in the series of “What were they thinking” photographs. It is a picture shot by Sage Sohier, and it shows Dr. Joe Upton, from Brookline Mass. On April 27th 2002, as he inspects one of the casts he made of children’s hands before an operation. He is a surgeon, has been for 25 years now, and he makes these casts of the hands of his patients, apparently pre and post operation. So there he is looking very focused into the palm of a plaster hand. A hand that looks more like a sculpture, a piece of art than a hand. Behind him on shelves are more little sculptures and in front of him on the table, probably some that were chosen as especially interesting. The constellations of fingers and the proportions of the hands are quite incredible. They are variations of a theme so familiar, sculpted in such incredible ways. There is a hand that is just one finger, there are some with four, there is a hand with seven little fingers. The arrangements vary as much as do the numbers of digits.
Each one of the plaster hands is a memory of a real body part, the memory of a real organ, of a real person, who really knew this hand as their own, until taught otherwise. It is very tempting to see these hands with curiosity and a sense of discovery. The otherness of their shapes is what intrigues. They look a bit like the hands we have, but then they are different. Dr. Upton has “taken care of easily 15,000 children’s hands”.
One Doctor, 25 years, 15,000 hands. Almost 2 hands a day. Do they still feel different? Do they still feel the same way they might feel for the first time observer of the photograph in the New York Times Magazine?
Several years ago I had the opportunity to work with children, of whom some had limbs that might have qualified them for Dr. Upton’s cabinet. I remember this one girl who happened to have two elbows on her right hand. The second elbow was closer to the hand and she did not have quite the control over the fingers in that hand. She might have been the funniest and happiest of the bunch. She was the one that brought the wildest mix tapes for the Friday disco. She was the one who knew the wildest jokes. And, well, she beat me every time at Foosball. (Table Soccer.) Really, not kidding.
What the picture on page 26 in the New York Times Magazine reminds me of is the way we learned to look at things. We have developed so far beyond what we were meant to understand, that we have begun to divide issues into tiny manageable portions. We describe them, we zero on them, we fix, we cure them. There is a cure for this, there is a cure for that. There is a doctor for the eyes, for nose and ears and hands. And there is a person who takes pictures and there is a person who writes the article (in this case, Amy Barrett), there is a person who is responsible for this, one that is responsible for that. We get rid of this and we get rid of that. And it all works. It works until something large happens that maybe reminds us for a split second or maybe for a minute, maybe for a day that we should be sometimes looking at the entire picture, not just the tiny place where our nose happens to be.
We can see the hands in the picture as the hands of others, or we can see them as human hands. We can see them as human hands, or se can see them as expressions of evolution which we praise so dearly otherwise. We can see them as part of evolution, a process we use to describe things, or we can see them as part of the vastness of the universe we are all a part of. We are all one large idea, it seems. Or can you really imagine yourself as just yourself with nothing and nobody else in any way, just you, yourself and yes, you? Everything is part of everything else. Really.
Were you expecting an opinion? Some funny commentary? I have none this time.

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