Musings

Knife Skills

Of course, the knife needs to be sharp. So make sure of that first.

Dull knives deliver blood.  Trust me on that one.

Other things I’ve learned, and continue to learn:

Be aware of your fingers.  The ones on your other hand.  The hand you’re not holding the knife with. 

You probably like them well enough and want to keep them attached to your hand.  And intact.

It feels awkward at first, but it’s worth your while (and your fingertips) to learn to curl your fingers down and slightly under on the onion or zucchini or chicken breast, you know, so you don’t slice off the tips of them as you whip up your dinner.  It’s not a natural feeling.  Your instinct is to HOLD the item being sliced or diced.  But your stronger instinct should be to avoid injury.  No matter how fast you think you’ll get your fingertips out of the way, one day your knife hand will be faster than your hold-the-food hand. 

Oh, and tuck that thumb under.  Yeah, that feels weird and awkward, too.  We have our beloved opposable thumbs and we’re quite used to using them to hold stuff.  So to NOT use this digit as we’ve become accustomed to feels strange.  But not as strange and weird and awkward as a big, fat, gauzy bandage.

So lately I’ve been really working hard to make my hand do these things.  It’s much nicer than having little nicks, and much nicer than having to stop, wash, rinse and dry, and hunt for a band-aid in the middle of prep work.  And really, it’s about time I learned to position my hand properly.

You get used to doing things the way you’ve been doing them, though.  It’s habit.  Grab the onion, peel the skin, slice it up, dice it up, toss it in the melted butter.  To change the way you do it requires slowing down and paying attention.  Learning it again.  Becoming slow.  Becoming new at something.  Feeling awkward and klutzy and…slow.  Inept.  Stupid.

But stay with it.  That’s the thing.  You have to decide that no matter how awkward and inept you feel, and how much longer it takes to chop that onion than it did before (as long as you didn’t draw blood), you’re going to hold that onion differently from now on.  The right way.  Even if, at first, it feels wrong.  A waste of effort.  A waste of time.  Because eventually, after you spend time being slow and stupid, you will become comfortable and adept.  And then you won’t even have to remind yourself to hold things that way, to tuck your thumb underneath.  It will become automatic.  Second-nature.  Just…the way it’s done. 

And you’ll save a fortune on first aid supplies.

So that’s your non-knife hand.

Then there’s the knife hand….

I’ve got carpal tunnel in both hands/wrists. 

Mostly my right hand, which, being right-handed as I am, is my frost-the-cake hand, stir the batter hand, whisk the eggs hand, pipe the decorations hand.  And my hold-the-knife hand.

I started with the numbness and tingling thing years ago when I was receiving manager in a big book store.  Repetitive motion – open the boxes, take out the books, receive them into the computer system (that’s how we did it then – I know it’s even easier now – just scan the code on the box and you have the contents added immediately to your inventory.  Pretty cool, though I must admit I was so enamored of how fast I could use that number pad to key in ISBNs….ah, the good old days when we walked uphill to and from school in the snow with no shoes on…), and filled the back room shelves by category for later shelving on the sales floor.)  I wonder now, though, if it was less repetitive-motion related and more a matter of lack of larger arm muscle strength.  Trying to do things with my hands and wrists and lower arms when I should have used my upper arms, upper body for some of it.  Just a thought.

Anyway, I stopped working at that job – for other reasons, mostly, but the numbness and pain certainly factored in.

I ended up working at a desk job next.  An office job.  There was typing, too, but keyboards have never bothered me, interestingly enough.  While at that job, my hands and wrists were fine.  And while I liked a lot of the people I worked with, the job itself was draining.  Mentally.  Emotionally.

And I was…bored.  I wanted to do something else.  Something more creative.  Something more satisfying.

Long story incredibly short, I worked for a time in a bakery.  Only about three months.  Maybe four.  By the end I was waking up in the middle of the night feeling like my hands were on fire.  It was horrible.  Painful and horrible and depressing.  The bakery was kind – they offered to hold my job if I wanted to have surgery on my wrists.

But…the timing wasn’t right.  In a lot of ways, now that I think about it.  I went back to that same desk/office/customer service hell job and Bill and I bought a house and had a couple of kids.

The only time my wrists/hands bothered me was during both pregnancies and for a month or so after.  Fastening onesie snaps was frustrating, but, eventually, the tightness and numbness went away.

Since then, I have flare-ups once in a while.  Christmas time, when I’m doing all the cookie-baking.  Or when I’m decorating cakes, if there’s a lot of piping to be done.  But those are now and then, not constant.

This new job I’ve mentioned.  Well, I’m not going to go into too much detail because I don’t want to discuss work on this website, really.  But suffice to say, I’m cooking.  Yeah.  I know.  How funny is that?  And how utterly fabulous.

When I got the job, some people – people who know me, know I like to cook – felt it was the perfect job for me.  And a few well-meaning people even went so far as to suggest that I’d bring in new ideas…that the people I’d be working with would be impressed.

I knew that would not be the case.  I knew there was a huge difference between a home kitchen and a professional kitchen.  And that I am nothing special.  I don’t say that to knock myself down, either.  I’m being realistic and sensible.

I knew I was not going to be impressive or inspiring or anything.  I knew I would be slow and awkward and nervous and frustrated and feel incompetent and stupid.  I knew I would have thin skin that would need new layers grafted on, and I knew I would wonder why they’d ever hired me.

And I was absolutely right.  I lost weight.  I could not eat before work, nor during the work day.  I’m like that.  I’ve already discussed that lovely trait in a previous post.

That was about a month ago.  A month of feeling slow and useless and all sorts of other self-inflicted negative adjectives.

But.  While I was going through all that new-job stuff, I was also talking to myself.  Differently than the way I have in the past.  It wasn’t easy, or natural.  But I did it anyway.  I realized, through my haze of perceived inadequacy, that I was (and am) in a wonderful place.  The people I’m working with are encouraging and supportive, and when they correct me, they’re not telling me I’m incompetent or useless, even if that’s the way I’ve interpreted corrective criticism for as long as I can remember.  They’re correcting me because they have loads more experience and they know things I don’t know.  Yet. 

I still don’t always believe that, though.  I still have the occasional sneaking suspicion that I’m just having a series of pretty good days and one day soon, probably the next day I work there, I’ll revert back to my normal state of incompetence and stupidity. 

But…maybe not.

Maybe not.

In the meantime, I’m learning things.

I’ve also got some numbness and tingling going on in my hands.  Mainly when I wake up in the morning.  As I go about my day, it flares a bit, and subsides.  I’ve found some yoga poses that are supposed to relieve the symptoms, so hopefully those will keep the flaming hand feeling at bay. 

I’ve learned how to hold a knife better.  Smarter.  And to use a vegetable peeler better.  Smarter.

I was supposed to be peeling eggplant one day.  But I wasn’t doing a good job of it.  I have one kind of vegetable peeler at home, but the peelers at work are different.  So there was that.  But still, it’s a vegetable peeler, not a saxophone.  I should be able to operate a vegetable peeler, right?  But I couldn’t.  I got little skinny bits of skin off, but that was about it. 

Told you.  Incompetent and stupid.

So I asked for a bit of guidance.

And basically I learned that I was trying too hard.  Trying to force something that didn’t need forcing.  I held the peeler too tightly, the eggplant too tightly.  And all I got for that was skinny strips of soggy eggplant skin.  And sore hands, sore wrists.

Once I loosened up, the peeling came easier.  It really did.  Such a simple thing.

Imagine that.

I also noticed that if I held my knife correctly, and if it was sharp, chopping and slicing came easier, too.  I did not need to clutch the knife handle in a death-grip.  I just guided it and the sharp blade did the work for me.  Sharp blade = easier cutting.  No need to arm-wrestle with the vegetables, nor to kneel on chicken parts. 

All these years, I have held far too tightly to knife handles and vegetable peelers and paralyzing thoughts.  My reward has been mostly numbness and pain.

I am learning to relax my grip. 

4 thoughts on “Knife Skills

  1. “All these years, I have held far too tightly to knife handles and vegetable peelers and paralyzing thoughts. My reward has been mostly numbness and pain.

    I am learning to relax my grip.”

    I love this… I really do…

  2. This is such an eloquently put and beautifully written post!
    Also I’m letting you know that I’m going through your archive. I’m working my way through 2004 right now! Just reading through your experience with your children while they are little is just lovely. ♥

  3. this is a great post. you never (well, I never) think about how you hold the knife or peeler but it really does make a difference. I also like that your lesson was loosen the grip. A life lesson for most people.

  4. I’m having a similar realization about singing right now… I had training about a bazillion years ago, and started recently joining a friend for duet lessons, only to learn that I’d gradually let go of many of the things I’d learned long ago. Somewhere along the line I started using too much air pressure to sing, and though on-key, the resulting lack of vibrato from using entirely too much effort ruined the great effect and made me SEEM off-key. I’m re-learning to relax, step back, and gradually build those teeny tiny muscles that control the vocal chords.

    Fascinating!

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