I've got two of the world's handiest tools

The trick, said one of the many editors in my life, is to tell people what they already know.

Open mail as usual on the sofa. Hold traditional envelope in left hand. Slide opener under flap with right hand and slice upward. Use thumb and index finger to extract contents.

Take newfangled envelope in left hand. Tear off ends with right thumb and index finger after bending and creasing with both hands. Tear off top in same way. Peel open with both hands.

Take newer-fangled envelope in right hand. As instructed, slide left thumb under flap.

Wrestle plastic-sealed catalog with both hands. Use fingernails for final break-in.

Repeat until through.

Rise from sofa with left hand full of junk to recycle, right hand full of stuff for spousal inspection on kitchen table. Afterthought: Put good stuff under left arm. Grab letter opener with freed right hand.

Unload.

Extend right arm to topmost shelf. Stretch and close fingers like grocery-store calipers to bring down wide can of new pancake mix.

Sudden itch near right ankle. No need to look. Right hand goes right to spot. Aah!

Chilly. Time for liner in raincoat. Insert fingers of both hands to find buttons, sight unseen, inside coat sleeves. Use same fingers to work buttons into buttonholes detected in liner sleeves.

What am I telling you that you already know?

There's nothing like a hand.

Talk about high tech! Have you tied your shoelaces lately, or braided your hair, or caught a ball, or fastened an apron behind your back, or watched a one-year-old spear a Cheerio on a mini-finger?

Forget trained skills like keyboarding, embroidering, playing the keys of a clarinet or the strings of a violin.

The everyday things done with hands are cause for everyday wonder.

I'm in the attic, one hand balancing items to throw away, the other excavating for more in boxes stowed by long- gone offspring.

Aha, an abandoned paperback of Loren Eiseley's "The Immense Journey," a naturalist's essays that I remember mentioned hands.

Cramped under the sloping roof, I keep places in the book with one hand while turning pages with the other. Eiseley was more cramped as he explored the fossils in a narrow crack in the prairie.

"As I tapped and chiseled there in the foundations of the world," he wrote, "I had ample time to consider the cunning manipulability of the human fingers."

I know what he means when I get out of the car with a cup, two concert programs, and ignition key held by various fingers of one hand while I close the door with the other.

Or when I'm clearing a dresser top, with papers to save and papers to throw away between different sets of fingers like a desktop file.

Or when I'm in library stacks holding a reference paper between the third and fourth fingers of my left hand while keeping a book open with other fingers of both hands.

Or when the disposal in the sink gets stuck once more. I try the old method of levering it loose with a broomstick in a pole-vaulter grip. No score.

I reach in with one hand by squeezing my fingers together. I barely squeeze back out with the olive pits my fingers have found.

Finally, my fingers feel a bit of metal stuck in the grinder. Left hand points a flashlight. Right hand reaches in with pliers, but doesn't have room to open them to grasp the metal. I make a little wire noose, and my fingers descend to put it around the metal so I can pull on it from above with the other hand.

Elegant, but needs work. I leave a voice message asking for the repair people to come. Can't resist soaping right hand and sliding fingers down there again to keep wiggling the metal. One more try. The disposal grinds again. I leave another voice message asking the repair people not to come.

Then there is the light bulb that breaks from its threaded end when I stand on a chair and reach to replace it in the recessed ceiling fixture. I clamp second and third fingers on the threaded end frozen in the socket. No space to use thumb and finger for the torque to unscrew it.

Will a screwdriver loosen the threads? I need every ounce of manipulability as I destroy the fixture in order to save it.

The nonjudgmental electrician takes out the whole socket and replaces it with both hands inside the ceiling while he looks around the room and makes conversation.

Nobody has to tell either of us that our user-friendly hands are state of the art.

Naturalist Eiseley, down beneath the prairie, mused on a finger bone. It could have been formed of aluminum instead of calcium - "the cells would have made it possible."

But I wouldn't want to eat breakfast cereal labeled 25 percent more aluminum. And I wouldn't want my mitts any other way.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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