This Is Your Arm


9000 square feet of white surrounds me.  The white is divided by black lines into four-foot by twelve-foot sections, each with one dark dot in every corner.  I am at the job site—a soon-to-be art gallery.  Hundreds of sheets of drywall have been hung in preliminary fashion with a few screws holding the sheets to wooden studs.  Ultimately, every panel will need to have thirty more screws to secure it to the framing.  I estimate I’ve got 3,000 screws to go.  My boss hands me a tarnished yellow and black battery-operated drill and a big tub of sheetrock screws.  “Here is your gun.  Here are your screws.  I need you to finish this by the end of today because the mudding guy comes tomorrow.”  I take the last bite of a banh mi sandwich—the end of a late lunch—and realize that clocking out at five isn’t going to happen.

I’ve been working for this contractor for a few months, but at this point I’m still very green.  I wasn’t raised with any building experiences and when I started the job, I didn’t know the difference between a wrench and pliers.  Still, I’ve now used the drill quite a bit as it is a ubiquitous tool on any job site, and I feel like I’ve got my head wrapped around it—point and shoot.  I begin drilling in the screws with a mix of confidence and reckless abandon.  I can get this done, I chant to myself.

Despite my haste, progress is slow.  Every other screw falls over as I pull the trigger on the drill, causing the bit to drive into the drywall and leave an ugly gouge.  When a screw does take, there is a good chance it enters at an angle and leaves part of the head protruding above the sheetrock’s surface—it needs to be redone.  On the rare occasion the screw goes in straight, it drives in three quarters of the way, seizes up, then “strips out”: the Phillips drill bit continues to rotate and grinds out the indentation of the cross in which it sits, the screw stuck in Limbo.  When the screw does go in all the way, I accidently drive it too deep past the sheetrock’s thin paper coating.  The paper helps the screw support the heavy gypsum, so tearing through it makes the screw useless as a source of support.  An extra screw needs to be added nearby.  Though I’m starting to sweat after an hour, I’ve only completed a few sheets.  I have, though, thoroughly decorated each sheet with signs of my ineptitude—gouges, abandoned holes and clusters of screws.

When I first started work, I’d been given a cursory introduction to the basic tenants of proper drill etiquette:  shoot straight, give it plenty of force, shoot straight, and shoot straight.  I think I am following these rules, but nothing seems to be working right.  It must be the screws, I tell myself, or possibly the bit, or, actually, the alignment of the stars.  I imagine a faceless, inept person at the screw factory who left little chunks of metal in the head of each screw, though close inspection of the screws suggests otherwise.  It takes another hour, a shout from my boss to get a move on, and a flawless demo from an experienced co-worker—proving that neither drill, bit, nor screw is faulty—for me to finally accept that the problem is me.  Well, it isn’t me.  It’s my arm.

At this point, my arm is burning from the fatigue of suspending the drill for so long.  The pain is something of a godsend as it brings my attention to the sensation, the feeling in general, of my arm.  As I prepare to drill the next screw, I watch my arm tremble—I suddenly become very suspicious of it.  Every other part of the equation was present and in working order; I hadn’t thought to check my arm for faults.  

Like an alien observer, I look at the entire setup of my hand, arm and drill as the bit holds the screw in place.  From above, I see that everything is at slight angle, maybe ten or twenty degrees, to the left.  I adjust it to the right, then observe it from the side—ever so slightly too high.  Again, I adjust my arm to make the screw perpendicular to the wall.  I pause, because it feels wrong, unnatural.  I peek again at the sides of the screw and drill—still straight.  Even though it feels wrong, it looks right, so I decide to hell with it and pull the trigger.  The screw drives in straight.

As the screw is about halfway in, it begins to slow down.  I know I need to give it more force to prevent it from stripping out, but normally when I push harder it doesn’t seem to help.  I stop again and look at the gun and my hand from the side.  Where is this supposed force coming from?  The drill’s handle sits in the notch between my thumb and forefinger.  If I straighten out my wrist, the body of the drill becomes aligned with my forearm and I can drive forward with my whole shoulder, rather than just my elbow and triceps.  I hold that positioning, flex from my shoulders and pull the trigger again.  The screw digs in deeper.

I slow the drill down as the head of the screw tugs on the sheetrock paper and try to feel how the event transmits through the handle to my hand.  There is a subtle change in resistance and quality—like a rubber band just about stretched to its limit.

I am somewhat fascinated with the fact that I have actually gotten the screw in successfully with a little bit of intention; I try to see if the miracle can be replicated.  I repeat the same system—check the alignment by eye, drive with shoulder, and feel for the tug—on the next few screws and all go in without a fight.  The process is still slow and still feels awkward, but I’m not wasting time by yanking out and redoing screws.  Gradually, as the process becomes more familiar, I am able to speed up.  My arm is still tired, but the feeling is less in my wrist and more in my shoulder and chest, which aren’t as impeded by the fatigue.  

After another dozen sheets with this new system, I am no longer checking alignment at every screw, but can tell by the feeling in my arm that it is perpendicular.  The sensation becomes more familiar and less awkward.  It still requires my attention to maintain the proper alignment, but overall I am able to spend less thought on the screw and more thought on thinking ahead—having my next screw in hand, eyeballing the next target and planning where to move my ladder without fumbling around.

I still don’t finish within the day, I still get chewed out by my boss for being slow, and I still have an arm that is dead tired by the end.  But, my understanding of how to use a drill has transformed.  In future situations with the tool, I look a little less green to the other carpenters on site—look a little more like I know what I am doing with a drill in hand.  The transformation, though, has nothing to do with my knowledge about the drill.  I still follow the same basic principles that I learned in the beginning.  What changes is the knowledge of my arm.  Recognizing its positioning and alignment in relation to the drill and the sensations associated with different movements allows me to put the drill’s principles into action—to use it as it was meant to be used.

That discovery shifted my perspective on how humans interact with any form of technology.  A technology, in essence, is anything created by humans to assist human activity: drill, paintbrush, banjo, iPhone, or healthcare system.  It is a unique facet of modern material culture that many technologies can be used by anyone with access, regardless of training.  But, accessibility is no guarantee that the technologies will be used properly or effectively.  Those of us raised in the digital era with exposure to information technologies have been oriented to the idea that effective use of a technology requires learning more about the technology itself.  If you want to use computers efficiently, you need to understand the nuances and functions of different programs.  However, with many other forms of technology, learning more about the technology itself is inadequate.  Rather, effective use—or mastery—of a technology requires an understanding of how the human serves as an intermediary between intention and the technology.  In many cases, the body must be used properly if the technology is to properly fulfill the intention.

When my boss first handed me the drill, he should have told me this:  This is your gun and this is your arm.

Adam Nishimura is the founder of Sawhorse Revolution. Currently completing an M.D. at the University of Washington Medical School, he has an M.A. in Biomedical and Health Informatics and 10+ years experience as builder, web developer, and nonprofit organizer.