The Claw Hands: Chilly Memories of Adolescence

For those of you not in Vancouver this summer, let’s just say it’s been disappointing. And by disappointing, I mean it’s been cold. Yesterday was my office BBQ. Last year I got a sunburn. This year I got claw hands.

“Claw hands” is the term I use to describe what happens when my hands get so cold and stiff they curl into useless frozen claws. After a freezing cold staff BBQ (can’t blame the organizers, I’m sure they thought mid-July would be a lovely time for an outdoor lunch), they weren’t much good for typing or handwriting or picking up telephones or anything else I do at work.

Poor me.

Illustration of me with claw hands by Sonja Kresowaty

I have very poor circulation and claw hands are a fact of life in cold weather. My first memory of the joys of claw hands comes all the way from autumn 1998: I was 12, Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” was played at all the junior high dances I was FINALLY old enough to go to, and I was involved in the only sport I was any good at: running.

In Saskatchewan, the cross-country running season begins in September and ends at the very end of October. The first couple of meets are generally quite nice and the rest of the season is pretty chilly. One particular meet that fall was held north of Meadow Lake, a meet most of us didn’t look forward to because it’s really hilly north of Meadow Lake  (let’s just say I’ve never ran on this “meadow” they’re talking about) and it was always cold.

I have an old photo somewhere of me at the starting line for that race and I’m sure I thought I looked pretty good. I was wearing a Buffalo Jeans t-shirt (with an @ symbol instead of the “A” in Buffalo, very edgy) and, the pinnacle of Saskatchewan athletic wear, Husky Athletics sweatpants. Anyone who grew up in Saskatchewan will understand why I could possibly have thought huge green ankle-biting sweatpants made me look cool. They were Husky. HUSKY. And maybe on anyone else, they would have looked just dandy.

The thing you must understand about me in 1998 is that I was a 12-year-old who did not yet weigh 100 lbs. I was long and bony but there was not a hip or a curve to be found. Certainly nothing that could really hold up a baggy pair of sweatpants. I made good use of the drawstring and hoped for the best. Sweatpants or no sweatpants, I’m absolutely certain I was already freezing before the gun went off, it being a typical grey autumn day in Northwest Saskatchewan, but I guess I assumed I would warm up during the 3km race.

And most of me did. A little. But not my hands. After the first 800m or so I knew it had been a big mistake not to include gloves (or better, mittens) in my stylish running ensemble. My hands were freezing. I tried to shake them out. I tried to rub them together. But they were balled into little fists of ice, so cold they HURT, and there was nothing I could do about it.

It doesn’t mean I didn’t try. During the course of the race I came up with two excellent solutions to my problem: one solution was to plunge my hands down my pants. Unfortunately, running with both hands shoved into the front of your pants is hard (try it sometime). The feeling of two cold hands suddenly being planted against my warm thighs was also a rather horrid shock to the system. My actions served to loosen the drawstring in my sweatpants and caused my pants to begin to fall down.

I remember striding past one of the checkpoints, hands completely hidden in my pants, and I have a memory of the image of a school-aged boy, a volunteer, standing at the checkpoint with a look of shock and total confusion on his face. I suppose I should have been embarrassed, I suppose now I must have looked like some sort of adolescent pervert, fiddling away in my pants on a running course, but I was too excruciatingly cold to care.

Once it became clear that the “pants solution” was slowing me down (and was ultimately not that effective) I moved on to solution two: I shoved my hands in my mouth. They took turns obviously, one at a time through the rest of the race. It’s a good idea when you think about it: my mouth was probably the warmest place on my body at the time, and with a little effort I could get at least half a hand inside.

Actually, no, of course it’s not a good idea. Once it was time to switch hands, the hand that had been in my mouth was now wet in addition to being cold. Since my hands were totally frozen stiff at this point (claw hands!) they were quite difficult to manoeuvre and fit into a mouth I was also trying to use for heavy breathing (since I was running a 3km race on hilly terrain and all).

In addition to my cold hands and falling down pants, my hand-in-mouth solution created a third condition for me to contend with. Due to the cold, my heavy breathing, and my constant shoving of my hands in and out of my mouth, my lips chapped and began to bleed.

This is pretty much what I look like running. Illustration by Sonja Kresowaty.

I can only imagine what my dad must have thought as he saw his middle daughter approaching the finish line (finally!); panting, pale and purple-cheeked, pants falling down, blood on her lips and hands, and, of course, the aforesaid hands curled into raptor-like claws, extending rigidly from my bony arms.

I don’t even remember crossing the actual line and having my placing number written on my hand. I don’t even remember if I gave my name to the helpful folks at the officials’ table. I ran straight for my father.

Dad: What HAPPENED?!

Me: (crying and blubbering through my bloody lips) My hands!

Dad: Oh Lauren. Why didn’t you wear gloves? I told you your hands would get cold.

Me: (still blubbering) I didn’t think it would be SO. COLD.

My dad tried to put his gloves on me at first but my hands were too stiff to uncurl and fit inside. He took me to the van and turned on the heat and I spent a heavenly afternoon with my hands on a radiator.

And THAT is the story of claw hands. And THAT is why I don’t care when people laugh at me for wearing gloves in April. If I had had gloves with me at yesterday’s staff BBQ, I would have worn them. Claw hands are not to trifled with. You never know when you’ll end up with falling down pants and bloody lips.


7 thoughts on “The Claw Hands: Chilly Memories of Adolescence

  1. Claw hands!
    You should consider yourself LUCKY to be in Vancouver though.
    I would pick cold weather and claw hands over this unbearable Toronto heat any day.

  2. Oh my gosh. I can’t stop laughing. That is such a brilliant story – and so brilliantly told!
    *contented sigh of enjoyment*

  3. I’m glad it brought you joy. 🙂 All I can say is that it was not funny at the time, it was very traumatic. I thought I would die. You haven’t experienced cold until you’ve been cold in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan (or maybe La Ronge….*shudder*). I do think it’s a funny story now, though, and one I haven’t thought about for a long time. Thanks for reading!

  4. You poor thing!! I seriously feel for you, having grown up north of Edmonton and suffering with insanely cold hands and feet. I see nothing at all wrong with wearing gloves in April. Indeed, I was still wearing mine on occasion in June and I now live on Vancouver Island! I’ll even admit to wearing merino wool scarves of late, but knowing the weather situation here, you’ll understand how I could do that in the middle of summer!

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