Pen Ultimate / Shouldering the Burden

A recent mishap spurred some reflection on a taken-for-granted body part.

One of the best-known jokes about Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is about someone who sees the play for the first time in his life, and is mightily disappointed. "The whole play is made of famous quotes," he complains.

One such quote is Hamlet's rapture in Act II, Scene II: "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!"

In rhetorical terms, there is a faint echo of this passage in one of Blaise Pascal's "Thoughts," published some 70 years later, in 1670: "What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe."

Although conflicting, both views are correct. Their juxtaposition highlights the fact that the human being is indeed an exquisite, infinitely intricate and sophisticated creature, whose faculties we have not - even with all our scientific prowess - managed to fully fathom. Ironically, it is often only when the body starts to malfunction that we get to understand and marvel about it. Only then do we begin to grasp how many elements involved in the form and movement of the body we take for granted, and how resilient and flexible it is in dealing with the wear and tear of daily life.

If I am waxing enthusiastic about the body all of a sudden it is because mine recently behaved like an imbecile worm of the earth and made me feel momentarily indeed like the refuse of the universe. My electric scooter and I had a misunderstanding with a rather steep ramp, and while my lower extremities and scooter obeyed the laws of gravity, my upper left arm insisted on twisting backward. The result was less grave and frightening than it sounds, albeit painful: I sustained a small fracture, but the orthopedic surgeons in the ER decided there was no need for a cast. Which made me wonder: How would an actor suffering a similar fate after taking a nasty spill react if the doctor told him there was no need for him to be in a cast?

Anyway, my left arm was put in a sling - not, of course, to be confused with the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" mentioned in "Hamlet."

So I coddle and pamper my upper arm these days. And while I won't bore you with the problems of functioning with painful and limited movement, I must say I have begun to appreciate how prominently the shoulder figures in our lives, in more ways than one.

For instance, let's imagine being out on the dance floor when the music (my own taste runs to tunes circa 1958 ) begins to play. If it is Paul Anka (who appear here in May ) who is crooning, "Put your head on my shoulder / Hold me in your arms, baby / Squeeze me oh so tight" - much as I would like my partner to "show me that you love me too," I'd have to caution her tenderly, "not that tight."

Carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders seems to be temporarily beyond my abilities, as is putting my shoulder to the wheel. Much as I would love to rub shoulders with important people, that too will have to wait, although I'd gladly have someone rub my shoulder with a soothing ointment, albeit gently. Every Sunday afternoon I'd love to forget about my cares, and rubbing elbows ("at the Ritz, with some millionaires," as Irving Berlin put it ) is a distinct possibility as long as said elbow is kept close to my chest. I am also capable of looking over the shoulder - if it's not mine. As to offering my shoulder to someone to cry on, I think that can be arranged. I can also sort of shrug my shoulder, but don't pat me on the shoulder, please. Because if you do, much as I would like to retaliate by giving it to you straight from the shoulder, alas, I won't be able to.

Which reminds me of the idea of giving someone the cold shoulder. Apparently, that expression does not refer to the human shoulder, nor did it originally mean being unwilling to show sympathy toward someone. Rather it referred to a shoulder of lamb or mutton being served cold to a late-arriving guest, as a sort of a gesture showing that he is not welcome. One relevant reference is from Sir Walter Scott, and it still reverberates today, especially in light of the number of corruption cases around us: "How often have we admired the poor knight, who, to avoid the snares of bribery and dependence, was found making a second dinner from a cold shoulder of mutton, above the most affluent courtier, who had sold himself to others for a splendid pension!" ("No Fiction," 1820 ).

But head and shoulders above the rest is the expression "having a chip on one's shoulder" - i.e., having "a perceived grievance or sense of inferiority" that may lead a person to "become embroiled in a conflict with others," according to the dictionary. To understand the origins of this saying, we need to go back to the dockyards of the British Royal Navy in the 17th century, where shipbuilders were allowed to take home as many chips of timber as they could carry on their shoulders. But on May 4, 1756, when the chips were down, the authorities changed the regulations. Thereafter, the bits of wood had to be carried under the arm, limiting the potential load. According to historical documents, on June 17 of that year, "came John Miller, shipwright, about 30 feet before the main body of the people, on which the Master Shipwright ordered him to lower his chips. He answered he would not, with that the Master Shipwright took hold of him, and said he should. He, the said Miller replied, 'Are not the chips mine? I will not lower them.'"

Keeping the chips on the shoulder as a dare or provocation later became a sign in America that someone was spoiling for a fight, a modern incarnation of throwing down the gauntlet as a challenge to a duel. The Long Island Telegraph reported on May 20, 1830: "When two churlish boys were determined to fight, a chip would be placed on the shoulder of one, and the other demanded to knock it off at his peril."

As far as I know, I don't have a perceived grievance or sense of inferiority, or a tendency to get into conflicts with others. And as a tiny bit of bone from my upper arm was indeed chipped, as the X-rays attest, during the aforementioned fall - from which I am recovering well, thank you - I definitely don't have a chip on my shoulder either.