I had that dream again

I’m going to blame Rebecca Watson’s latest video, where she talks about how some smart people must appreciate astrology as “just stupid fun”. I’ve been there, only it was palmistry, not astrology. And I regret it so much. I sometimes have this dream, and it makes me ache inside, except it’s not exactly a dream, more of a vivid memory that rises up to disrupt my sleep. It’s the time I hurt my father with pseudoscience.

In my teens, I was soaking in fringe nonsense. I had relatives who subscribed to Fate magazine, and those dreadful men’s magazines like Saga and Argosy, and somehow we ended up with how-to books about tarot cards and palmistry. I devoured them because I devoured every book I came across. I found them fascinating, but don’t worry — I never fell for any of that nonsense, it was more of an exercise in training myself to examine claims critically. I remember throwing myself deeply into these magazines (I can’t bring myself to call them “the literature”) and reading up on reincarnation, and ghosts, and NDEs, and Bigfoot, and UFOS, only to come away shaking my head at how pathetic the evidence was, and how grandiose the claims of the believers were.

I wasn’t doing this for the usual ego reasons I encountered among the skeptics — I wasn’t debunking stuff to show off how much cleverer I was than other people, because I didn’t talk to anyone else about it. I was curious, I wanted to evaluate these amazing stories, but out of a sense of honest enquiry about how the world worked. I didn’t read a copy of Fate magazing and then berate my Uncle Ed about how idiotic this rag was, and how nobody should believe any of it. I’d set it aside and move on to the next strange claim, for my own personal satisfaction. For all I know, my family might have thought I was a true believer, because I read all that crap and didn’t bother to say anything negative about it.

Yes, I was a nerd from an early age.

So, about my palmistry phase…I must have been about 15 years old. I was getting into it. Palmistry is wonderfully specific: every bump and wrinkle on your hand has a name and a meaning, and the length of a line or whether it was single, double, or trilple or the size of the bump had an interpretation, or rather an excuse, that you could point to while doing a reading. The specificity was appealing, but what I was not sufficiently aware of was that they were often contradictory, and that what the palmist was supposed to do was selectively piece together the various pieces to build a nice cold or hot reading of the person. That’s why it was so complicated and detailed in a piece-wise fashion — it was a vehicle to assemble stories to tell. Stories that didn’t really have any foundation in evidence or reality, for that matter.

I haven’t gotten to my dream yet. This is all background.

Oh, but I’m not done with the background yet! I have to say a bit about my father.

What my dad loved was the outdoors, fishing especially, and art. He liked to draw and paint. My grandmother had quite a few of his watercolors framed and hanging around her house (I think my brother has some of them now). There were nights when all of us kids and Dad would sit at a table and draw stuff, which I remember fondly, although I myself wasn’t much of an artist. I think if he could have lived the life he wanted he’d have been living in a cabin in the mountains where he’d paint and fish every day.

He did not live the life he wanted.

He had six kids and a high school diploma. He worked as a manual laborer, basically. He often worked two jobs, was frequently laid off (Seattle, Boeing, that up-and-down economy), and when work stabilized, he was a diesel mechanic.

OK, now I can tell you about my dream/memory, and why it hurts.

I am sitting on the steps of the back porch, reading a slim book on palmistry. Skimming, more like — it is a series of labeled diagrams of hands, more of a reference text. I’m flipping through it when Dad comes out and sits down next to me.

“What are you reading?”

Sometimes Dad would encourage me to read my comic books to him. He was a fan of Turok, Son of Stone and Burne Hogarth and adventure stories, but he’d settle for Batman or Spider-Man. I am about to deliver disappointment to my father.

“It’s a manual on how to read palms.”

My doom arrives. He offers me his hand.

Dad has awesome hands. Strong hands. Broad hands. Thick fingers. Scarred and blistered. Decades worth of grease and grime is ground into every line, every whorl. It is an intimidating hand for a soft-skinned nerdy teenager. I open up the goddamned stupid palmistry manual, and right there is a diagram of the spectrum of types of hands.

On the left, a long, slim-fingered hand, labeled an “artist’s hand”. On the right, a stubby-fingered paw, labeled a “laborer’s hand”. As a literal-minded student of the palmists’ art, I point to the latter image and say, “Well, Dad, you have spade-shaped hands.” Stupid, stupid, stupid. I cringe even now at my insensitivity. I was also ignoring the golden rule of this kind of psychic game: always tell the client what they want to hear.

Dad looks like I’d sucker-punched him. I’d stuck a knife into his self-image and twisted it hard, without even trying. I want to take it it back. I want to say, “I didn’t mean it.” Dad just looks at his hands for a minute, gets up and doesn’t say anything, and goes back in the house. I think I really hurt him.

In years to come, he’d occasionally remind me of that moment, usually with a chuckle and some self-deprecation, but he never forgot it, so I know it hit him hard. “Spade-shaped,” he’d say, and waggle those fingers at me. Or I’d try to describe my Ph.D. program, and he’d stop me by reminding me that he had spade-shaped hands.

“I love your hands,” I want to say, “those are the strongest hands I’ve ever seen, those are a good father’s hands, those are hands that worked hard for a family, those are heroic hands.” I never do, I never did, and now he’s gone. We weren’t an emotionally demonstrative family, or at least, I wasn’t, and my opportunity passed me by.

All I have left is regrets. And sometimes that memory rises up in the night and haunts me, and churns around in my brain and refuses to let me sleep. Then I have to confess my sin, with no one to absolve me.

“Forgive me, father, for I was young and thoughtless, and now I grow old and torture myself for the harm I did. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Please let me sleep.”


  1. says

    I understand the stupid words coming out of a person’s mouth to hurt someone they love For me it wasn’t palmistry but my story is the same. It isn’t your fault, that is what teenagers do, they test things, they think in black and white. That being said, no matter how much I tell you it isn’t your fault, you will still feel that regret.

    I am sorry, and I guess this is my way to say you aren’t alone, others like me, wake up in the middle of the night with tears streaming out of their eyes 35 or more years later, regretting simple sentences that were never meant to hurt, but wounded those you loved.

    It makes you human, fallible and it also says you love him. Hold onto that part, the love and know you are are just like the rest of us and not the devil or the bad guy, just a fallible human.

  2. vairitas says

    I can recall him occasionally mentioning his spade shaped hands, I don’t think you hurt him, I think the understanding that he was never going to have that artists life is what hurt him. I know that he knew you loved and respected him . I too have memories of times when I felt like I disappointed him, or let him down somehow.but then I remember all the times he was still there for me and helped me through rough times, or taught me things and I knew the love was reciprocal

  3. redwood says

    I’m in my 60s and I still say and write (in emails) stupid things to hurt people because I just don’t realize how they would sound or how people would interpret them. I don’t mean to be nasty but sometimes what I thought was clever was just hurtful. These are usually said to family or friends (that’s who we usually communicate with, after all), and I feel like an ass afterwards. So for me, it’s an ongoing struggle to watch what I say even now, sometimes just opting to take the safer route of saying nothing. You have a lot of empathy, PZ, that’s why you feel the way you do, but it’s okay to let your bad feelings go and I hope that writing them out like this will perhaps send them on their way.

  4. anxionnat says

    This reminds me of my great-uncle Fred. He was a lifelong farmer, an immigrant from the German-speaking part of Switzerland, where he’d grown up on a dairy farm. He moved to the Central Valley (of California) in the 50s, married my great-aunt Fern, and together they bought 160 acres near Chowchilla. They had 12 dairy cows (each with her own name, each with a stall with her name carved over it–Fred’s work), some almonds and cotton (cash crops), alfalfa, and a huge garden where they grew most of their own food. I was a city kid, and I’d never tasted fruits and veggies as wonderful as those grown by Fern and Fred. Fred wasn’t a big guy–maybe 5’5″ tall–but he had the hugest hands I’d ever seen. Like you describe your dad’s hands, PZ, Uncle Fred’s hands were worn with toil. I loved seeing him reclining in the alfalfa field, as he occasionally did, his dairy cow friends clustered around him, while he called their beautiful German names and stroked them softly with his big hands. (The cows were very protective of Fred; we kids had to stay out of the field.) After Fern and Fred died, their farm was bought by a big corporate landowner, their hand-built house and barn demolished, and their land planted to I-don’t-know-what, typical of today’s Central Valley. I can still remember Fred, perched on his hand-carved milking stool, expertly spritzing the barn cats with milk, and them purring and his cow looking around inquisitively.

  5. stroppy says

    I like that story.

    I’ve got my regrets. You don’t want to ignore them, but they can swamp you if you get in the habit of dwelling on them, as I tend to do.

    The best advice I heard recently was to “titrate your regrets.” It helps.

  6. PaulBC says

    those dreadful men’s magazines like Saga and Argosy

    These must be before my time. If I substitute “Omni” am I on the right track?

    I got interested in the I Ching a little, since it showed up in fiction I was reading (Herman Hesse and Philip K Dick). I never imagined it to be anything but random. But randomization itself can have the power to pull you out of a a rut (and more formally, avoid pathological cases in deterministic algorithms). I wondered if there might be some value to reflecting something ambiguous and uncorrelated to my thoughts on a daily basis. I never tested the idea systematically.

  7. PaulBC says

    I’d be fine with “spade-shaped hands” just don’t call me an upstart.

    Seriously though, touching story. It’s unfortunate that people can get sensitive about things like that. Actually, I have an older brother with a chip on his shoulder about having been a metal worker. He’s very smart, dropped out of college, and (granted it’s self-reported) was excellent at it. It also harmed his health and he reinvented himself as an IT network person in middle age. He’s absolutely certain I view him with snobbery. In fact, he’s amazingly gifted and can do plenty of things I can’t do at all.

  8. says

    In the 60s and 70s, at least, if you wanted to read about cryptozoology and UFOs from a totally credulous point of view, the men’s magazines were perfect. I still remember seeing the story of the Minnesota Iceman in one of those magazines, which I’d read while waiting for the dope to dry on my model airplanes in my grandmother’s attic. That one had me going for a while.

  9. mrandmrsoccupant says

    PZ, you woke up before the end of the dream. This is how the rest of it goes:
    [Dad just looks at his hands for a minute, gets up and doesn’t say anything, and goes back in the house. I think I really hurt him.] You run after him. “Dad! Dad!” catching up to him before he can get to his private place. :”I had the book upside down.” You hold the book out — upside down. “You really have heart-shaped hands.” You gently take them in yours. “These are strong hands, sure. But they’re also artistic hands. And most importantly, they’re loving hands.” The hurt melts away, leaving only admiration, respect, and love.

  10. AussieMike says

    The last time I hugged my dad and gave him a kiss on the forehead was March 29 this year. But he had died in his bed only 30 minutes earlier. I hadn’t hugged him properly since I was a kid 30 or 40 years ago. So stupid I know. His 80th birthday is tomorrow, 26 September. Don’t leave it that long ok!