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14 Jun 2021

A public service announcement about knife safety – About two months ago, we had a little incident here that some of you reading this will already know about. For those of you not in the know, HJ was in the kitchen getting ready to make some peanut butter cookies and I was in here, in my study, skyping with my parents. I heard a scream ring out from the kitchen, and I ran in to find HJ holding her bleeding hand; she had managed to cut herself pretty badly. The first order of business was to try to stop the bleeding and figure out exactly how bad it was. We failed at the first, which gave us a fairly good idea about the second, and we determined that she needed to get to the hospital and would likely need stitches.

“Be careful with your knives.”

Well, as it turned out, she didn’t need stitches—she needed a lot more than that. I don’t want to go into too much detail on the story, because that’s not really the point of today’s entry and it isn’t a very fun story to recall, but we ended up going to three different hospitals that day until we finally got to a place that had a doctor that could help us on a Saturday (if you hurt yourself in Korea, try not to do it on a weekend if at all possible). The verdict was that HJ had severed a tendon in her thumb and needed immediate surgery. She ended up spending four days in the hospital, which was not fun for anyone. (She’s fine now, by the way—I’ll come back to this later.)

Fortunately, her roommates at the hospital were all very nice people. One of the other women in the room was also there for a severe hand injury, having cut open her hand while de-seeding an avocado (yes, even though that big thing in the center is hard and singular, it is apparently a seed and not a pit). I remember initially being puzzled about how one might go about cutting open one’s hand while removing the seed from an avocado, but I didn’t dwell on it, and I soon forgot about. Last week, though, HJ was mentioning a discussion that she had had with one of her students from New Zealand. Her student had told her that they actually issued public service announcements in NZ whenever avocado season rolled around because so many people cut their hands while removing the seed. Again I was puzzled, and this time I decided to ask how this happens.

“Well,” HJ said, “You know, you have to swing the knife into the seed and then twist it to get it out.” I replied, “Yes, I know that, but how on earth do people cut their hands while doing this?” She looked at me oddly and then mimed the process by holding an imaginary avocado half in one hand and swinging an imaginary knife at it with the other hand. My eyes bugged out of my head. “Wait a minute. You mean that people swing the knife at the seed while they are holding the avocado in their hand?!” The odd look remained on her face. “Well, yeah. How else would you do it?” I was nearly beside myself at this point. “You put the avocado down on a cutting board and then swing the knife at it! What kind of idiot would swing a knife at their own hand?!”

The answer, it would seem, is “everybody but me.” (If you, dear reader, happen to put the avocado down on the cutting board like me, please do let me know and restore some of my faith in humanity.) Honestly, it just seems like the height of insanity to me to swing a knife at my hand, and it blew my mind to discover that this is the way most people do it.

I grew up around dangerous objects such as knives, hatchets, tomahawks, guns, etc. No, I was not raised in a little house on the prairie. But my brothers and I were trained in knife and gun safety from a very early age. Whenever we handed a bladed object to someone else, for example, we did not let go unless the other person said, “Got it.” You never wanted to assume that someone had a firm grip on a knife or an ax only to have that blade end up in their foot. We had this drilled into us so firmly that we still do it to this day, in fact. We were so strict on this that we often ended up driving our mother crazy when we refused to let go of a knife we were handing her—not until she finally, with an exaggerated, exasperated sigh and roll of the eyes, said, “Got it.” (If I am to be perfectly honest, being able to drive our mother crazy while practicing proper knife safety was a bonus.)

Things were even more strict with guns, for obvious reasons. There are a few basics that everyone needs to know, such as the idea that you treat every gun as if it were loaded, no matter what you think you might know about its condition. You should thus never put your finger on the trigger unless you are ready to fire (I always cringe when I see photos of people posing with guns with their fingers on the triggers), and you should never point a gun at someone unless you want to kill them. That last bit may sound like I’ve put it a bit baldly, but that’s the way it is. Basically you should just assume that the worst possible thing that could happen with a gun will happen, and then act accordingly.

Most people don’t handle guns on a daily basis, though, especially here. Every Korean guy handles a gun at some point because military service is mandatory (well, provided you aren’t the son of a rich and/or powerful person), but outside of that you don’t see a lot of guns. Knives, however, are tools that people use every day. So I’m writing today’s entry as a sort of public service announcement about knife safety, because apparently there are a lot of insane people out there who need it.

It should probably go without saying by now, but please do not try to remove the seed from an avocado while the avocado is in your hand. Get out a cutting board. Place the avocado on the cutting board standing up (you’ll probably have to hold it in place) and carefully cut down the center until you reach the seed (if the little stem knob is still in place, remove that first because you won’t be able to cut through it and it will just push into the flesh). Then roll the avocado forward on the board, cutting all the way around the seed. Now—here’s the important part—once you’ve twisted the avocado and separated the half without the seed from the half with the seed, lay the latter half on the cutting board (seed up, obviously) and then swing the knife down and lodge it into the seed. If you miss, or if the knife glances off, no big deal! Just try again and be thankful that you didn’t just slice your hand open. Once the knife is lodged firmly into the seed, carefully grab the avocado and twist to remove the seed.

Of course, we’re not done yet. Now you have a seed that is stuck on your knife, and probably pretty firmly at that. Do not try to remove the seed by hand. Hold the knife over a bin, with the blade facing down, and then whack at the seed with a sturdy wooden spoon or some other hefty implement that you can comfortably wield with one hand; with a good whack the seed should fall into the bin. Now you can put down the knife with all of your digits intact.

I feel kind of silly writing this, but it needs to be said. And it’s not just avocados. Basically, if you want to cut anything with a knife, you should get out a cutting board. You may be wondering how HJ managed to cut open her hand while making peanut butter cookies. Well, she had put a big chunk of butter in the stand mixer bowl and was waiting for it to soften. It wasn’t softening as quickly as she wanted, though, and she reasoned that it would probably soften quicker if she cut it up. We were fine up to that point. The problem was that she didn’t feel like getting out a cutting board and figured that she could just cut the butter while it was in the bowl. She slipped... and you know the rest.

It’s been a shade over two months since that day, and it has been a long and difficult recovery. She had to have her fingers immobilized for nearly six weeks, and the past few weeks she has been working hard to regain dexterity. She’s doing much better now, but she still has a way to go before she is back at one hundred percent. The surgery left a scar, but that’s not such a bad thing. The doctor urged her to use a special cream that would supposedly lessen the scarring, but she refused—partly because the cream was ridiculously expensive and probably wouldn’t have worked perfectly anyway, but also partly because she wanted the scar as a reminder to be careful in the future. As an added bonus, the scar resembles a lightning bolt, so I have taken to calling her Harry Potter.

Anyway, I just wanted to say: Be careful with your knives. Knives are not nearly as dangerous as guns, but they can still be very dangerous. I said above that you should basically assume that the worst possible thing that can happen with a gun will happen, and it’s not a bad idea to approach knives the same way. If you miss what you are aiming at with the knife, or if you slip, where do you want your other hand to be? Say you are finely chopping up some vegetables. If you miscalculate where the knife should come down, where do you want your fingertips to be? This is why chefs hold items that they are cutting with their fingers bent in such a way so that the knuckles contact the side of the blade. Your knuckles will act as a guide for the blade, preventing it from getting close to your fingertips, which are tucked safely away.

And a final word of advice: Keep your knives sharp! That may sound counterintuitive, because you may think that you are more likely to cut yourself badly with a sharp knife. Actually, the opposite is true. With a dull knife you have to work harder, and you are more likely to slip or push too hard and then cut yourself. And, believe it or not, you’re generally better off cutting yourself with a sharp knife than with a dull knife because the cut will be cleaner; a dull knife will tear at the flesh, making for a more painful cut that takes longer to heal.

I’ll leave today’s public service announcement at that, I think. You may think that I’ve gone a little overboard today, but I have watched HJ suffer over the past two months because of something that could have easily been prevented, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. A little extra caution when handling dangerous objects goes a long way.

(Oh, I almost forgot! Those peanut butter cookies did end up getting baked by yours truly, and we had our revenge when we ate them.)

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