What the Other Hand Is Doing

I’ve started paying attention to my other hand.

It comes and goes, my ability to observe, and eventually I know I’ll forget to. Becoming aware of things outside my usual field of vision is like stumbling across the method by which I might regularly experience a lucid dream. Suddenly it’s easy, and I’m having them every night. Then, inevitably, there is the lapse, and I find myself caught up in a night’s intricate fiction… and my lucid dreaming seems at an end.

But for now I have the knack.

The arrow always fits precisely into the wound it makes, according to Kafka. And so it is that I fit into my life, and what I see is governed by those things I’m predisposed to seeing. But am I affected only by those things? How could it be any other way? And yet there are ways one might catch a brief glimpse of the world outside. An accident happens–I trip over the cat and gain a view of the underside of my bed that would not otherwise have sought. Why, there’s that drawing I made in grade three, shoved up into the box spring’s torn lining. And so it’s a happy accident, but who am I now that I’ve made it outside? If I am my point of view then I can’t be certain I am who I think I am.

I think it’s safe to say that most of what’s going on is beyond our perception, unless we’re falling down stairs or being shot at constantly. Being that such days as those are well behind me, I must rely on other means to affect an expanded awareness. Triggers, if you will, to remind me to look for the things invisible to me.

When I hear the word “gales” I immediately face the opposite direction–turning my back on my proper life and facing instead the invisible. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen behind my intended world. There is a grace in the motion of things there, and the light casts a particularly warm glow. But it is a fleeting vision–soon the enchantment must die for being witnessed, all except for a vague impression. When seeing what you should not see, the trick is knowing what to see.

When I see something red next to something yellow I remember to ask a stranger a question. It can be any question, as long as it’s presented eloquently, and is compelling, humorous, and self-effacing. I’ve always had a facility with conversation anyway, but my conversations with familiars have never been as sweet as those I’ve held with complete strangers. Everything they tell me is a secret, and the bond of trust is implicit. People glow when they tell me their stories, and I can often wander away without their taking any notice at all.

And when I shave in the morning and think of my step uncle, long dead of AIDS–and this happens more frequently than you might expect–I am reminded to look at my other hand. The idle hand. Here is an emissary from the hidden world as close as it can be. While one hand conducts the shave, this other is a frozen spider stirring from dormancy only to twist in sympathy as I maneuver around the contours of my chin. But, having become aware of my other hand, I can now feel the tendons pulling muscles to maintain its position – the energy it takes to keep my hand locked in that position. This other hand of mine is not performing any necessary function like the beating of my heart, yet its choreography is driven by a hidden part of myself.

Eventually I know that I will forget to remember this–may even lose the ability to do so–but for now there are two of us, and we live in two worlds, side by side.

The Ride, Part III

One too many food references is woven into conversation, and an impromptu vote is forced. June spots a Chinese restaurant with parking right in front, and requests that we debark before she attempts to park. “I can’t park when other people are in the car,” she says. I admire her candor. Meanwhile, somehow we are no longer strangers.

An hour later, as we await the bill, a leaden digestive silence has settled upon us. I feel like it’s my turn to contribute something now; some small treasure from my past that my comrades will be able to relate to, and which will serve to illustrate, in the telling, just how clever I am. I find myself unable to dredge up any treasures however–a creative dry spell has rendered me completely barren of anecdote. But the ongoing silence is stifling, and while they demonstratively probe teeth with tongues for food morsels, I’m driven into a conversational coffin, scratching uselessly at the lid.

In a panic I blurt out the first thing that occurs to me, triggered no doubt by some cascade of neural misfirings. “What’s the deal with cornucopias?” To her credit, June considers the question seriously, though she offers no response. Meanwhile, toymaker has found distraction in a hangnail and doesn’t even look up from the task at hand.

I continue intrepidly. “When I was a child I had to peer over the crystal cornucopia to see my parents at the dinner table. This decorative monstrosity was at the center of a collection of several less remarkable pieces of table art: a salt shaker, a pepper mill, a brown crooked candle that my grandmother had made. I still don’t really know what a cornucopia is. Certainly nothing as docile as a mere fruit basket. Not with its lolling hingeless mouth. Every night the cornucopia’s fishy maw gaped at me like I was a cloud of plankton. But what manner of beast was this really? Two little glass ball feet, and a scorpion tail that curled up over its back–it was a celebration of decorative horror. It gave me nightmares! That doesn’t seem so odd, does it? I mean I had no experience with cornucopias, no point of reference. And something about that thing was just not right.”

The waitress arrives, and brings with the bill a tray just large enough for our fortune cookies. June hastily takes charge of cookie distribution. I mentally check the cornucopia story off in my head. Lesson: learned.

The fortune cookies prove compelling enough to wrench toymaker away from her private cuticle odyssey. “Ah,” she says, “best part of eating Chinese.” She sounds desperate to me.

June, having successfully snatched the check while distracting the others with the best part of eating Chinese, now hunches over the sheet protectively like a prisoner with a fresh plate of gruel.

I look at my cookie, and see it mocking me. “What’s yours say?” toymaker asks college. Telling the fortune of a writer in a rut requires no power, let alone the kind of universal forces commanded by the wily fortune cookie. June would have done better to have handed me a small gray stone instead. College reads his fortune. “Even misfortune can lead to opportunity,” he says dully. He’s not impressed, but toymaker gives a polite nod of acknowledgment.

I break the crisp grin of my cookie in half and eat the portion in my right hand–as is my tradition–before straightening out the thin pink slip of paper within the remaining portion. Toymaker recites her fortune from memory, “The spring of compassion can sustain multitudes.”

I look down at my fortune. “Are you ready?” it says. I turn it over in my hand, but the other side has only a small collection of Chinese pictograms in red ink. “Are you ready?” What kind of fortune is that? Is it even legal? I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I realize that I’m actually feeling a little bit cheated. What about my spring of compassion? How about a little opportunity for the blocked writer? But no. Just, “Are you ready?”


A shiny red circle has appeared on my fortune. It’s definitely blood, I can tell that right away. It’s fallen right on top of the question mark, rendering my fortune “Are you read.” Before I consider the implications of that question my left hand goes instinctively to my nose. No one else has noticed the drama taking place on my side of the table, which is just as well. My nose is dry, and sniffing reveals clear passages. The question remains then… and I look up to the ceiling, feeling a little self-conscious about it. But of course no one else has seen, so I’m safe.

The Ride, Part II

Aliens in science fiction books never suffer from minor ailments like hangnails or dyspepsia. On the other hand, their chances of having an appendage blown off seems to be impressively high. And they’re far more likely to be blown up entirely than to choke on a meatball. They don’t sprain their wrists, don’t wake up with grit in their eyes, and almost never drool by accident when they forget to close their mouths. Aliens in books always hear each other perfectly, and the straps on their underwear never need adjusting, and they never get paper cuts.

Some day I will write a book that focuses only on minutiae. It’s something that I think about from time to time. When I write my science fiction story, my aliens will experience minor difficulties constantly, just to make up for the glaring omission elsewhere. An antenna will get caught between hemispheric brain plates causing a great deal of embarrassment. Or they’ll start cussing at random intervals, and break stuff that they really loved, and then regret it.

But I digress.

When I reengage my senses I see that we’ve picked up another person, a gay man with a shaved head and an immense goatee. He’s somehow managed to pack himself between toymaker and college student. We’re driving slowly through a crowded part of the city. The sun is setting and the randoms are strolling casually, enjoying the cool evening. College student is peering out the windows with interest, and I’m guessing he doesn’t often make it to this part of the city.

“And this area is known for leather,” goatee tells college.

June chirps a laugh. “Oh, don’t scare him.”

College makes a dismissive “tch.”

“No really,” goatee insists. “For about thirty years now leather has been really big here.”

Toymaker hasn’t been paying attention. Aliens always pay attention, but in real life you sometimes miss crucial parts of what’s going on. She tries to contribute something meaningful though. “Are you talking about the Mafia?”

Goatee is quick to put her on track. “No, dear, leather. We’re talking leather. It’s much more interesting.”

“Oh, you just haven’t met the right Family,” I say.

The Ride, Part I

Outside my building I step off the curb, wait for the approaching car to stop, open the passenger door, and slide in comfortably, shutting the door after me. There is a young woman behind the wheel, a woman I’ve never seen before. As she pulls out she gazes thoughtfully over the road. Her hair stops me. I mean it could literally stop me, it’s so big. Much bigger than is now in fashion, and the fact that she doesn’t seem to realize this makes it that much more conspicuous. And I know that I’m not big enough a person just to let it go. “Your hair!” I exclaim, an edge of panic creeping into my voice.

“What?” Her thoughts have been elsewhere.

I make gestures in the general direction of her head. “I said, your hair,” I say.

Instantly she’s with me. “Oh! Yes, my hair,” she says. “I had it done.” An ominous bit of vagueness to be sure. The Mafia never used the phrase to such haunting effect. “What do you think?”

I consider for a second. “Mainly synonyms for ‘big,'” I admit. “They certainly… did it up, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s nice, don’t you think? I needed a change.” I think, you may also want to consider staying away from low-flying jets. I guess I should ease off a little bit. After all I don’t know this woman.

That I’m in her car at all is a matter of gestalt, which suits me fine. If anything maybe this will help to get me out of my creative rut. In the meantime she seems fine with the arrangement. “What are you called?” I ask.

“Hm? Oh. I’m June. You can call me June.”

“I’m Jeff,” I offer.

June looks over briefly and repeats, “Jeff.” She makes a wide turn around the new statue of Donald Rumsfeld’s colon. “You don’t mind if I pick some people up, do you?”

Just a little bit later we’re heading over the bridge, and I’m listening to the conversation in the back seat. Not to the actual words so much, just the general sound of it. June’s picked up two other people; friendly folks. One of them is a toy designer, and is now discussing a tourniquet kit she’s designed for preschoolers.

Words can spur the imagination. Particular words, certain phrases, different conversational patterns or just the existence of words at all. I’ll take it all, given the chance. But sometimes thoughts are like organs that the body rejects. They don’t take, whether or not I desire them. I’m my own victim and the casualty, in this case, is creativity. Not that it matters.

Meanwhile, they’re still talking. June asks, “Weren’t those the shorts that were flammable?”

The young man in the back seat lets out a surprised, “Whaaaaat?” He is a college student, I think.

“Yeah, there was a big hoopla,” June explains, “because someone wearing those shorts got caught in a fire.”

The toymaker puts in, “It was something about the material, I think, that made them extremely flammable.”

“Wow,” says college student, appreciating the horror of it. I smile not because I find humor in some mythical tragedy, but because I’m enjoying the concept of conversation. Ideas are being exchanged by modified sounds traveling through the air. I imagine people exchanging beads with one another. Drawing into temporary groups, transferring beads from one bag to the next and moving on.

“Yeah, I hear they’re coming back in style actually,” the toymaker says thoughtfully.

June looks up into the rear view mirror, “Really?”

Then I say, “Yeah, like a phoenix.” And then I laugh the wrong way, and spend the next few minutes trying to clear my nose out. Humans are delicate creatures.

My Neighbors

entry_85I don’t trust the cult at the end of my street. Last week that was the worst of my problems, and I wish it were still. For the past week I’ve spent my nights with my ear pressed to my bathroom floor… but I get ahead of myself. Perhaps some history would help to illustrate how things have taken a turn for the worse.

On the whole the little community down the block minds their own business, but this is a small town, and one’s personal activities always have broader social implications.

Their enclave is bordered by a tall wooden fence, and doesn’t fail to leave an impression. Oh, there aren’t any symbols or statues to tip off the idle observer. No Biblically-themed topiary or molar-shattering gongs, no hulking crosses or pipe organs. But to the astute observer it’s the lack of these things which draws the eye. Their facility isn’t ostentatious–not like, say, a stealth bomber hangar–because it’s much like the other houses on this block; your standard American Cult Compound style. It’s just much larger, like a bear in a dog costume: pretending to be a dog, but actually 20 times larger, and occasionally sitting on or mauling one of the other dogs. And they keep adding wings to it, out to the side, and stacked on top. So, “conspicuous” is the word, I guess.

The first time I really took notice of the cult was when they repainted their residence a year ago this spring. In the morning when I left for work I passed by the dark gray facility as usual, and observed a plain white van sitting by the curb outside the front gate. By the time I returned that evening their entire compound was at least two shades lighter gray. I nearly swerved off the road contemplating the zeal that it would require to complete such a job in a day’s time. What kind of diabolical operation was happening behind that fence?

I decided to pay closer attention, and couldn’t help but to cast a wary eye in that direction whenever I left my apartment. No one else seemed to pay them any mind however. When scores of plain-clothed men slung satchels over their backs and heaved them up the rear ramp no one batted an eye. But I noticed. When the drapes in their windows disappeared, only to be replaced by shiny silver ones, no one looked twice. But I noticed. And when the hot water in my shower began to peter out after only three minutes no one said a word. But I noticed.

And I wondered, might such an institution be in violation of local zoning statutes? I asked a friend of mine well versed in both architecture and public works, and the answer was both obvious and distressing. “In this area churches can’t occupy residential areas. That’s determined by the local Zoning Ordinance.” But then what about the huge church at the end of my street? “Well… either they’re in violation, or you’re living on holy ground, my friend.”

That was the day I began to pay more attention to my neighbors. Of course they wouldn’t raise a stink if they were all in on it. Or maybe they all belonged to their own competing factions, each one vying for dominance. It’s a cult-eat-cult world out there, and may the sweetest Kool-Aid prevail. Fourteen houses between my apartment and The Complex–14 little burgeoning cults. During the day my neighbors measured their carports, sized up their hedgerows, and expanded their porches. But at night…

The sound in my bathroom wasn’t like a drip. It was regular, but crisp like a ticking, and faint. There were nights where I heard nothing at all, and I thought I’d imagined the entire thing. But other nights the sound was undeniable, and was as close as a knock on the other side of the door. Last week I finally got up to see what was going on, and in the dark I followed the sound all the way down to my bathroom floor. The easiest assumption would be nesting possums, but I don’t know if I can make myself believe that. No, it’s the cults, I’m sure of it. They’ve grown restless, and – zoning ordinances be damned – something more primal is taking place.

I think they’re tunneling.

Manufacturing Consent

The first thing I saw on the news this morning was a dozen or so Iraqi citizens pulling the head of a toppled Hussein statue around the town square. Free at last? A few moments later the station I was watching replayed the tape from the beginning–as they would many times–and more of the context of this historic event was revealed: an American soldier draping the American flag over the statue’s head (the same flag that flew over the pentagon on 9/11, according the the BBC’s Paul Wood), followed by a massive U.S. military armored vehicle pulling the statue down.

How glorious! It put me in mind of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when U.S. troops hacked away at the wall so that the people of Berlin could dance on them… Oh wait, that didn’t happen. The people of Berlin dismantled that wall.

Maybe there’s a stronger parallel then with the monuments of Lenin, which the U.S. military tore down as part of its drive for regime change in the last days of the USSR. But wait, that didn’t happen either. They were pulled down by, among others, the oppressed people in Ukraine.

So what’s the difference?

Something about seeing that desert-tan military vehicle tugging away at a central symbol of the opposing regime doesn’t sit right with me, and on impulse I turned the channel. It confirmed my suspicion as every channel was showing the same scene, shot from the same angle, shot with the same camera. Apparently this was the scene we were all meant to see. Not a block away, not in the rubble where peoples’ homes had stood, not in the next city over where, even now, the battles rage on.

The Americans are in that square to show the natives how to celebrate their liberation, and to allow us to watch. The Iraqi citizens had gone about it in the wrong way, apparently, having spent the past few days “looting” goods as their city burned. The U.S. soldiers, meanwhile, showed the Iraqis the true path by taking sledgehammers to ceramic portraits of Hussein.

Why are we in Iraq again?

Professor Robert Jay Lifton said that those who seek to control history are doomed to failure. I find that thought incomplete however. I think that those who seek to control history and fail are doomed to failure, but it’s the people who seek to control history and succeed that you have to really watch out for.

Terminal II

I get paid to watch people. I’ve watched thousands in my day, for business and for pleasure, for their own good and to learn just enough about them to bring about their destruction. Sometimes both. But the line between the two eroded long ago, and when that happens it’s hard to feel engaged in the process at all.

On the return trip I am again visited by anti-cruise, and I see that the young woman making the announcement enjoys informing us of the plane’s delay. She’s getting off on it. Oh, she’s masked her glee with some skill, but it is no less evident to me. Good for her. The knowledge fortifies me against the wait.

I take a solo seat at the edge of the freshly stirred crowd and entertain myself by playing the survival game. That is, what if the plane went down in the mountains, and we were forced to survive by relying solely on each other? It’s simply a way to pass the time, but this time the odd people are out in force – something that may change the social dynamic entirely.

  • giant fat man with his cellphone tucked into the tortured waistband of his sweat pants
  • priest with the traditional collar, only he’s smoking and wearing a beret
  • stumpy woman in skirt with lumpy, rippled varicose legs
  • fidgety guy fiddling with his keys, flips them onto the floor, then waits a moment before coolly picking them up
  • mother trying to control her unruly child by whispering sharp rebukes through her teeth, scanning the crowd to see who might be taking too much interest in it
  • woman in black, sweater around shoulders, holding a football
  • pretty slouching girl with Heidi braids gesticulating with frustration at pay phone
  • small pack of ex frat friends yell in unison in reaction to sports event on hanging bar tube
  • wallpaper pattern-wearing bird lady who meets up with fat cellphone man
  • prim businesswoman with too many travel accessories becomes visibly frustrated, retrieves real estate materials from her carry-on, then puts them away again, gets up, leaves
  • man with shockingly sloppy cold eats pizza, says hello to woman throwing away garbage in adjacent receptacle, checks out her ass

Somehow this disparate selection of humanity hums and flourishes, but only because no one can read another’s mind. What a thin and fragile wall that is. I know for a fact that the football woman would be the first to take blood if we were to crash in the mountains, and that it would be for a seemingly minor infraction by one of the ex frat boys…

But I’m suddenly unable to concentrate on the details of that scenario – I’ve been staring too long and, unable to look away, it’s made me blind. Now I’m noticing things on a larger scale. I’m seeing trends. Patterns. There are only archetypes before me.

They stand tugging at their gold chains, tipping their indoor sunglasses, cursing into their cellphones so that everyone else can appreciate the facility with which they wield the accoutrements of advantaged social standing. Have things suddenly taken a turn for the worse? Indications are grim, and I look for clues within the madness. The patterns have changed, and I am left adrift, eyes darting in search of something significant.

Salvation: As if on cue, two men come to a stop just a few feet in front of me. They have just met and already have found common ground. They speak of old car engines while I marvel at the speed with which they were able to tease out this morsel of shared interest. They speak and it’s like I’m watching a play, or an articulated parade float made to stop right here in front of me, their momentum having left them just so. They’re bumpkin chess pieces, white hair, worn plaid shirts, and a slow methodical way of talking, referring to each individual engine part as if it were sitting right there in front of them.

The announcement comes: the plane will be delayed by only two hours. There is a collective exhale, and the community excitedly compares notes. Hardship has brought them together, but I resist it. I will not share in this. Community seems like the easy way out at this point. Isn’t it obvious? How do we so easily fall for it? Who has the advantage, the community or myself at the periphery, watching them?

The answer is unclear, but I’m pretty sure I could take them if it came to that. I’m already looking at them as if I were reading about them later, for being in the moment is too costly a forfeiture, even if the reason is elusive.

One of the flight attendants rushes by me, and I hold my breath out of habit. The idea is that I should keep my lungs free of their air. It’s an ingrained behavior – actually something I came up with back in elementary school. A behavior that has lasted so long must surely be advantageous to survival, and no one knows about this but me. But in the end I love them because they do not know my secret, and I need them because I wouldn’t have a secret otherwise.


Tonight’s rain has made me fearless. I’ve known for a while that I have reverse light sensitivity disorder, but only lately have I realized that darkness is, for me, an intoxicant. The day’s sun is like a thousand flashing rapiers, reducing me to tatters – can you imagine it? At night I am prone to reckless, foolhardy gestures, and cannot be trusted. But rainy nights are a different story, for it is then that I become invincible; a hero among men (and others). I slay Grendel and find company in Heorot, and then prepare a meal for my hero friends. The Warrior Souffl#233;, a dish taught to me by my bedstemoder, who once razed a village for want of a worthy mate. It’s a long story, best forgotten.