Sunday, March 6, 2011

Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk

"Now I play the guitar like I’m touching a girl. I used to play it like I was touching myself." - Ryan Adams after breaking his wrist.

Last Friday's snow did its best to stop me, and Saturday was without a repairmen. Finally, a week late, in this tiny, climate-challenged town, I was able to get my guitar fixed.

I had carried it with me from L.A. to Seattle, across the air to the East Coast and finally to Amherst. Sharing a room meant I didn't play it as much as I like, and breaking my wrist meant I didn't play it all. But on January 14, when my cast was cut off, I realised how much I missed strumming the strings. 

I wasn't immediately able to play it again - it has taken nearly two months to get most of my movement back - but I after my first physical therapy visit I was encouraged to pick it up again as soon as possible. A few weeks after I finally did.

In absence of regular attention, the strings had crusted up and lowered their tuning to the point of sounding like a baritone. I gave it a quick tune up but immediately noticed that something was very wrong with the sound. The intonation was awful and the frets were buzzing like an electric toothbrush. I could alleviate part of the problem by placing a capo on the 5th fret, but playing so high up the neck was still aggravating my wrist. The neck was bent in a way that looked like my wrist moments after I hit the snow. The hot and cold of the last few months left the wood with same effects of a visit from a blind sculptor.

My physical therapy visits were often a cause for embarrassment. The grip strength on my right hand was 40lbs, while my left could only achieve 5. I'd grab and pull rubber tubing of different lengths and strengths for reps of 20 or until the shaking of my arm got too bad. The fluid and other swelling around the joint would then get massaged in preparation for stretches that a contortionist would giggle at.

As the weeks went on I began to feel the strength and movement return. I'd purposely lose count of reps so that I could add a few more on to each set. When I wasn't struggling to complete arm curls with a 2lb weight at the physical therapy room I would spend prolonged exercises in my room with the equipment they had provided. My supination is still limited by a pain that feel like an elastic band at its limits - with a few muscles and joints disagreeing on how far and in what direction they're going to move - but everyday usage has almost returned to normal. Drinking a pint of Guinness using on my left hand proved this.
home gym

My visits were coming to an end on Thursday. I completed a series of tests that confirmed my movement at this level is better than average. The strength, though not great before, is still plainly absent. When I finished my appointment I was sent on my way to see my original doctor for a follow-up. There was some prodding and yet another x-ray and he seemed ecstatic at the results. However, with one look at my left arm compared to my right he prescribed another 10 visits to physical therapy to find that aforementioned strength.

It's been over 12 weeks since the injury and the whole experience from the medical side of things has been perfect. From the free ambulance ride (with sirens!), to the young orthopaedic doctor who was telling us where to go out that night while he used his entire body weight to straighten out my fractured bone, everyone has been completely professional and highly personable. Even the doctor here gave me his son's contact details so he can direct me on where to go in Miami.

It's taken time, exercise and a fuck-tonne of money on insurance but now when I pick up my guitar the notes resonate with a newer meaning. I remember saying to someone I would have preferred to break my legs over my hands so that I could still play guitar, and though I'd prefer to break neither, I still stand by the quote. Now I'm absolutely rapt to be able to pick up my guitar again. Playing shitty folk songs and annoying my room-mate has never been as fun, nor has it ever taken such a journey to get here. Bob Dylan, watch out.

Ryan Adams - Learn to Love
This is the first song Ryan Adams wrote after breaking his wrist. It's always been a beautiful song, but for 12 weeks its been intertwined with notes of aspiration. My fingers and ears aren't connected like his, nor are my words as poetic, but it was, and still is a great song to put on a pedestal while I try to make my hand stronger than before.

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