Published Monthly



Pointing the Finger
by Susan Burton


I retired my middle finger in my early twenties, but lately it's become increasingly unruly. There are so many reasons to be angry: tailgaiting SUVs, parked SUVs, tax credits for SUVs, an arrogant governor with a fleet of monster SUVs, a war for oil for SUVs, gas-swilling, safety-test-failing, bumper-nuzzling SUVs. Sometimes I grow tired of using my words.

"I never flip people off," I told my friend Michael last summer. "It's vulgar."

"Well, aren't we the picture of refinement," he said. "I'm just crass, I guess.”

"Use your words," I said smugly.

I remembered our conversation as I was driving down I-280 one evening just before Christmas, watching the car get closer, its chrome fangs and hot breath threatening to engulf my Civic. "Fuck you," I said. I waited until the oversized SUV drove past me and I raised the middle finger of my right hand. Vulgar? Yes, but I was right and he was wrong.

The next day I met my friends Rob and Cathy and their kids at Pier 39. I watched Cathy and the boys on the carousel; we walked around, looking at the sea lions on the docks, and chatting. Almost -four-year old Sean is still learning to navigate the language. He chatters, hums, sings and parrots. I say "Hi, Sweetie," and he repeats it back to me, so I say it five more times to make us both laugh. Soon I'll teach him to say, "Buying a huge car is selfish and irresponsible." Sean's older brother Andrew is learning how powerful language can be. He uses his words to charm, captivate and cajole, and like most six-year-olds, he is a prolific fabulist. Ask him how he likes kindergarten and he tells of a cruel teacher who throws him in the dungeon. Down cement steps. Every day. The teacher laughs as she’s tossing him down the stairs. Andrew lives in a world of dragons, monsters and superheroes, where justice is swift and sure.

After lunch, we headed back to my place to exchange gifts. Cathy wanted to stop by Glide Memorial Church on the way to make a donation. "They're really hurting this year," she said. Definitely, I thought. And things are only going to get worse. Cuts for social programs, tax breaks for the wealthy, corporate greed and those damned SUVs. I spared them my usual diatribes — why ruin a beautiful day? Besides, they worry about the state of the planet, too, even if they don't share my penchant for ranting and wild gesticulation.

Rob double-parked and left the motor running, while Cathy and I ran inside the church and back out a few minutes later. I climbed in the back seat of their minivan, grabbing the top of the car to lift myself up. Cathy got in the front and shut the door.
I screamed.

My finger—the finger—was wedged in between the door and the frame.

"THE DOOR! OPEN THE DOOR!"

Cathy said: "Oh my God," Rob said: "Shit," and they both reached for the door. It was stuck.

"THE DOOR! OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR!"

That became my incantation for the next minute, my screaming and crying distracting me from the fact that no one was able to disengage the child-proof lock. A small crowd gathered - men who’d been hanging around outside the church. One of them yelled, “Open the door!” Rob yelled back, ”It’s stuck,” and I continued to scream.

Someone finally got the door open, and Cathy took me back inside the church office, where the employees made me sit down, and one of the men from outside the church brought me a Ziploc bag filled with ice. I was crying so hard I could barely see him, but I could hear his voice. “Put your hand in the bag, honey. There you go.” He shook his head, and I could hear the wince in his voice. “You need to get to a doctor. That hurts, I know, that hurts.”

I didn't want to go to the emergency room, because I knew that it would involve needles or stitches or shots, and I am a coward. I just wanted to go home.

Three hours, seven stitches and one tetanus shot later, I went home. Cathy felt terrible. "I'm so sorry," she said. "It's not your fault," I told her. "It isn't anyone's fault. Stuff happens."

The accident wasn't Cathy's fault, but over the next couple of days I started to wonder: Was it my fault? Of course, I didn't want my finger smashed, but why was I so careless? Was God telling me to get my ass back to church? Was the universe trying to get my attention, telling me not to raise my hand in anger? Should I be using my words instead?

I think that was it.

Over the last several months, I've used that finger indiscriminately. An extended middle finger has its merits; its message is succinct and unmistakable. At the same time, it is a cliché, a tool of the furious, the frustrated and the inarticulate. How can I bemoan our collective decline into selfishness and incivility, while swearing, sputtering and waving my hand in the air, with less maturity and eloquence than a preschooler? It's impossible to flash the peace sign or extend a helping hand with a clenched fist or a raised finger. I thought I'd always known this, but now I have a reminder – a pink, half-inch reminder – across my knuckle.


Susan Burton is a writer and student who lives in San Francisco. An avid Googlewhacker, Susan is still keeping her 2003 New Year's resolution to drink more.

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