Words in a Row

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My Dad’s Hands

I just bought a used gui­tar, so I wan­na talk about hands.

I’ve always had big hands. Today I look like an aver­age-sized guy with big hands, but when I was a kid? Oh boy.

From left to right: First Sis­ter, Thing 1, Thing 2, and holy crap I look creepy!

I have a pic­ture of my sis­ters and me tak­en when I was 4 years old. I didn’t look like a kid with big hands; I looked like a kid wear­ing a pair of those giant foam hands they use to play Slap­jack on The Tonight Show With Jim­my Fallon.

The used gui­tar I just bought is a Gib­son Les Paul. I’ve always want­ed one, but they’re hel­la expen­sive. My Best Half spot­ted a guy on Craigslist sell­ing a Les Paul, though—he was sell­ing a lot of equip­ment, includ­ing the Les Paul, for which he want­ed only $350.

A Les Paul these days can run $2,500 or more, espe­cial­ly if you get chrome PAF Hum­buck­er cov­ers, moth­er-of-pearl fin­ger­board inlays, the sun­burst fin­ish and some of the oth­er good­ies on the one I just bought.

I drove down to Cordes Junc­tion to take a look at the gui­tar. The sell­er was a groovy old­er guy who looked like a cross between Gan­dalf and Jer­ry Gar­cia: gray and white shoul­der-length hair, ZZ-Top beard, tie-dyed T‑shirt, the works.

The Les Paul was in beau­ti­ful shape; almost mint con­di­tion. Gan­dar­cia said he had a bad shoul­der and the Les Paul was just too heavy, and he had arthri­tis so he couldn’t play as much as he used to anyway.

He didn’t care about get­ting his mon­ey back as much as he cared about find­ing a good home for the gui­tar. I liked him and I liked the Les Paul, so I bought it.

(He also had a 100-watt Mar­shall amp he want­ed to place in a good home, but I like being mar­ried so I regret­ful­ly declined.)

Click to embiggenate!

Back in 1982, when I was 20, I saved up and bought a Gib­son Invad­er, which was a bud­get Les Paul: It didn’t have the sculpt­ed maple top, the moth­er-of-pearl fin­ger­board inlays, plus a few oth­er cheap­er parts.

But it was still a damn fine gui­tar, and since it was less expen­sive it was like hav­ing a project car: I didn’t mind hot-rod­ding it up. I replaced the bridge pick­up with a Sey­mour Dun­can mod­el; drilled a hole between the knobs and added a phase switch­er; yanked out the stock pots and installed but­ter-smooth CDS (or was it Alpha-Con­trol? Don’t remem­ber) pots with hand­made caps so crys­talline they could make a brave man weep.

My friend Rob, who has a habit of nam­ing things I own, named the gui­tar Sledge. And I played it, to use a tired old cliché, until my fin­gers bled.

Not long after I adopt­ed Sledge, I moved out of my par­ents’ house and moved in with my friend George. George is an amaz­ing drum­mer, and our liv­ing room was jammed with my stereo, my gui­tar and amp and oth­er accou­trements, and George’s drum kit, which looked like the moth­er ship from Close Encoun­ters of the Third Kind, except it was big­ger and more expensive.

Ama­teurs.

And we had a lot of friends who would come hang out: the afore­men­tioned Rob, Tori, Dave, Daniel (who gave me an Elec­tro-Har­monix Gold­en­throat talk box—DAMN Daniel!), Kim, John, and I’m sure there were others.

And they were all excel­lent musi­cians, and we would jam, which means THEY would jam, because I was still learn­ing to play, so I stum­bled around in the back­ground on gui­tar, sound­ing like Lin­da McCart­ney sort of play­ing key­boards and kind of singing along with Paul, who was too kind to tell her the sound guy had her micro­phone turned off.

Harsh truth: I loved play­ing gui­tar, but I was caught in that frus­trat­ing trap of hav­ing juu­u­ust enough tal­ent to under­stand what real­ly good gui­tarists were doing, but know­ing I’d nev­er ever be that good.

That was okay. I didn’t need to make a liv­ing play­ing gui­tar, and I was lucky enough to spend time with some real­ly good musi­cians and enjoy both­er­ing the neigh­bors with them.

Like most gui­tar guys I accu­mu­lat­ed a lot of gear: stomp box­es, a real live tube amp from Fend­er that tried very sin­cere­ly to kill me, but that’s anoth­er sto­ry, and a pink pais­ley Tele­cast­er that yes, looked just like the one Prince played, although I hadn’t heard of him yet.

I hotrod­ded the Tele­cast­er even more; pri­mar­i­ly with BMG active pick­ups that were encased in black ceram­ic blocks and looked unbear­ably cool, plus oth­er stuff I won’t bore you with, before I final­ly admit­ted I just didn’t like the Telecaster.

Oh, it looked cool and it sound­ed good when I played it, but it sound­ed GREAT when any of my real musi­cian friends played it. Also, Rob nev­er named it any­thing. I think he knew it wasn’t going to work out for us and he didn’t want to make the breakup any more painful.

It was the neck. A lot of Fend­er gui­tars have one-piece rock maple necks, and the Tele­cast­er was one of them. But it was too skin­ny, and with my freaky huge hands I felt like I was play­ing a pencil.

Our pastor’s son was about 12 at the time, and he’d saved up lawn-mow­ing mon­ey and bought a real­ly beat-up, life­less acoustic gui­tar. He was sav­ing up to buy an elec­tric gui­tar, and then he planned to save up even more and buy an amplifier.

So I gave him the Tele­cast­er and said he could just wor­ry about sav­ing up for a new amp. I didn’t see any point in try­ing to recoup the mon­ey I’d spent fix­ing it up when I could give it a good home with some­one who need­ed it and was already far bet­ter than me at guitar.

And 30 years lat­er, I found a beau­ti­ful Les Paul that need­ed a good home. Kar­ma, baby.

Not acid-washed jeans. I wore bell-bot­tom jeans because my feet are so big, but no one sold acid-washed bell-bot­toms, so Rob and I would put our jeans in the sink, splash bleach on them, then throw them in the wash­er. Rob called ’em “Cloud Pants.”

I have exact­ly one pho­to of myself from the years I spent liv­ing with George and the musi­cians’ com­mune we oper­at­ed: I think I was 22, and I’m play­ing Sledge. I was about as tall as I am now, but pipeclean­er skin­ny, and my hands are still ridicu­lous­ly big, if not as X‑Man mutant big as they were when I was a kid.

When 1995 rolled around, I’d been mar­ried for a while and No. 1 Son was on the way, so I did what any red-blood­ed Amer­i­can man would do: I quit my job, sold our house and moved us all to Ore­gon so I could go to college.

And while we were pack­ing up to move, I made two bad deci­sions that still haunt me: I looked at the big pile of gui­tars and amps and stomp box­es and oth­er gear I’d accu­mu­lat­ed, and I decid­ed it took up way too much room.

I also got rid of an antique bar­ber chair for the same rea­son. That chair was ridicu­lous­ly cool.

Some­times you see these memes ask­ing what you would say to your­self when you were a teenag­er; I would tell myself not to get rid of my gui­tar stuff and not to give away the bar­ber chair. But I prob­a­bly wouldn’t lis­ten. I’m stu­pid that way.

So I loaded up the car with all my gear, except for a grungy old JDS acoustic I want­ed to keep because I liked drag­ging it to con­certs to see if I could get sig­na­tures on it, so Randy Stone­hill, Phil Keag­gy, Ter­ry Tal­bot and Bar­ry McGuire had all signed it.

(I also have a Vil­lage Inn kids’ col­or­ing book/placemat that No. 1 Son and Bar­ry McGuire col­ored togeth­er when No. 1 Son was 3, but that’s yet anoth­er story).

I drove to a music store in Tope­ka, the name of which I for­get, but it was on 17th Street behind a no-kill cat shel­ter that used to be a Hardee’s, and I trad­ed it all in on a real­ly nice 12-string Wash­burn acoustic, which I still have but play only on the rare occa­sion when I want to play Supertramp’s “Give a Lit­tle Bit,” because the stu­pid-big fin­gers on my stu­pid-big hands make the gui­tar sound like a cou­ple of cats run­ning around fight­ing on top of it.

It didn’t take long to regret my deci­sion. Three days lat­er, as we hit Inter­state 70 west on our way to Ore­gon, I exclaimed “Why the HELL did I get rid of 12 years’ worth of stuff I loved? Why didn’t I just get rid of the sofa or the TV or My Preg­nant For­mer Best Half?”

My Preg­nant For­mer Best Half, who was in the car with me, expressed her dis­plea­sure at this remark by giv­ing me a pinch that still hurts today.

And so I went to col­lege and met many oth­er musi­cians who were bet­ter than I’ll ever be, includ­ing Andy Gure­vich (the tit­u­lar guru of the Gure­vichi­an cult, which is also anoth­er sto­ry), Matt, John, and some more folks I hope I don’t offend by not remem­ber­ing them.

And I watched them play and I enjoyed it, but I missed being able to stum­ble around use­less­ly behind them.

And I vowed that even though my play­ing sucked, some­day I would buy anoth­er elec­tric gui­tar, just as soon as I could afford to feed my fam­i­ly with some­thing more than Top Ramen.

But that nev­er hap­pened, because I was too busy ruin­ing my hands. Which reminds me of my dad’s funer­al, which I’ll get to in a minute.

I had a series of stu­pid­ly dan­ger­ous jobs in my 20s and ear­ly 30s: I worked night shift in a con­ve­nience store, in a state hos­pi­tal with the men­tal­ly ill, and as a res­cue mis­sion chap­lain before col­lege. No, not as dan­ger­ous as being a cop or a fire­fight­er, but then again cops and fire­fight­ers have train­ing and equip­ment and insur­ance and stuff.

Dur­ing and after col­lege I also worked as a con­crete mason and on secu­ri­ty teams in col­lege and in church and elsewhere.

After that I got a job doing web devel­op­ment, which I loved, but which also helped me build up a love­ly nascent case of carpal tun­nel syndrome.

But after all the stu­pid dan­ger­ous jobs I’d had, I got bored with hav­ing a safe office job, so I joined a Kem­po karate school to spend more time with my kids, and wound up lik­ing it and help­ing teach (even though I was about as good at mar­tial arts as I was at gui­tar). Which also did not do my hands any favors.

Com­e­dy is not pretty.

I have some real­ly cool scars and sto­ries about griev­ous injuries to my hands and fore­arms: A spec­tac­u­lar (human!) bite scar on the back of my right hand; a scar and nerve dam­age on my right wrist from being hit with a bro­ken bot­tle; a frac­tured ring fin­ger that healed crooked; a burn scar at the base of my thumb from being splashed with sul­fu­ric acid (yet anoth­er sto­ry), sev­er­al bro­ken knuck­les, assort­ed con­nec­tive tis­sue injuries from break­ing bricks at Kem­po demos, and oth­er stuff I forget.

That was just my right hand. I abused my left hand even worse:

Dur­ing a Kem­po spar­ring match I blocked a punch with my left pinky fin­ger, which emit­ted a glo­ri­ous­ly hor­ri­ble snap that made every­one in the room wince; I caught my hand between an engine block and a garage floor; I got hit on the back of my fore­arm so hard a bunch of gan­glion cysts showed up lat­er; and I got mauled by dog who took a cou­ple of good chomps out of my fore­arm and hand and left behind a big numb area.

Oh, and I also got diag­nosed with MS, which caus­es some stiff­ness and numb­ness in my left arm and hand, and to top it all off I’ve got a bit of arthri­tis here and there in both hands that I’m sure will be loads more fun in the future.

Just before Dad’s funer­al two years ago, I… what? No, that’s not a non sequitur; I said I was going to talk about my dad’s funer­al right up there. Pay attention!

Just before Dad’s funer­al start­ed, Mom and my sis­ters and my kids and My Best Half and I all went up to view him in his cas­ket, and to give him some gifts: I gave him a John­ny Cash CD; The Chow­der gave him a lit­tle apple pie (anoth­er sto­ry), and oth­ers I can’t remember.

The funer­al direc­tor was there, dis­cussing Dad’s appear­ance with Mom, and he looked at Dad’s hands and remarked, “These are the hands of a man who worked hard.”

True. Dad was a glazier for more than 40 years; he also did handy­man work on the side for those 40 years and also rebuilt or remod­eled just about every­thing in our house to boot.

After he retired he did handy­man stuff almost full-time (I remem­ber him jok­ing that retire­ment was bor­ing, what with only 40–50 hours of work a week). He was in demand as the main­te­nance guy for a num­ber of rental hous­es and small apart­ment buildings.

Today I was look­ing at a pic­ture of Dad tak­en in April, 2002: He’s sit­ting on a hotel room bed next to No. 1 Son, who was 6 years old, and he’s hold­ing The Chow­der, who was 7 months old.

Right to left: No. 1 Son, The Chow­der, a bag of wal­nuts, and Dad

The hotel room bed was in Chang­sha, Hunan Province, in Chi­na. And the rea­son we were there was to adopt The Chowder.

Dad’s hands were small­er than mine (hell, Bigfoot’s hands are small­er than mine). But they were thick and cal­lused and cord­ed with mus­cle and scars, and they looked like two bags of walnuts.

Right now I’m 5 years younger than Dad was in that pho­to. And while I’ve nev­er made a liv­ing work­ing with my hands, oth­er than the afore­men­tioned stint as a con­crete mason in col­lege, I like to think I’ve inher­it­ed some of his bet­ter traits:

He had a bea­t­up old poster in the glass shop he worked in; it said “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

He wasn’t preachy or pushy; all he did was set a stan­dard and then demon­strate it.

I deliv­ered the eulo­gy at his funer­al; lat­er some guys he’d worked with, plus his for­mer boss, told me his co-work­ers would gripe at times that Dad was kind of slow and didn’t turn things around as fast as every­one else.

His for­mer boss told me how they answered that gripe: “Yeah; he’s a bit slow­er. But he nev­er, ever has to go back and redo anything.”

It’s only been for about the last 10 years of my life that I’ve real­ized just how much that influ­enced me, with­out him lec­tur­ing or preach­ing at me once.

I’ve owned a cou­ple of hous­es; I’ve worked as a writer, a graph­ic design­er, an edi­tor, a web design­er and a web devel­op­er. When I do stuff I try to find a way to do it ele­gant­ly and sim­ply, to avoid quick-and-dirty solu­tions in favor of doing it right the first time.

Draw me. Draw me like one of your French Bulldogs!

The oth­er day I was sit­ting on the floor in our liv­ing room and tun­ing the Les Paul. Pep­per was lying in front of me with her head on my knee, gaz­ing ador­ing­ly up at me like she was Rose DeWitt and I was Jack Dawson.

My Best Half thought that was cute and took a pic­ture with her phone.

When I saw the pho­to I chuck­led at the way Pep­per was mak­ing eyes at me, but then I noticed that my hands looked like sacks of wal­nuts, just like my dad’s hands.

Most of the jobs I’ve had in my life don’t cre­ate a tan­gi­ble lega­cy; I can’t point at things I’ve made or fixed, or art­work or books I’ve writ­ten or things I’ve built.

But my hands look a lot like my dad’s hands; a coin­ci­dence of genet­ics and life expe­ri­ences for sure, but I can live with hav­ing huge, half-ruined hands if it means I can hon­or my dad’s lega­cy a lit­tle bit.

2 Comments to My Dad’s Hands

  1. Laurie H says:

    Dadgum­mit big bro, you dun made me cry with your beau­ti­ful writ­ing! No one can write bet­ter than u! I’ve nev­er thought your hands were that big. The biggest thing u have by far is a BIG HEART! Love your sto­ry & pics. Sor­ry for your aches & pains… but u missed the part where u hit your head!!! That’s what caus­es u to think a lit­tle off… like when u say u weren’t so great at play­ing gui­tar and that u haven’t used your hands much! U’ve remod­eled & built entire rooms, done plumb­ing, rebuilt cars & done tons of oth­er things! U r sim­ply a very hum­ble man… just like your dad! 💖

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