Friday, April 15, 2005

Admonitory Finger

In England, people signal meticulously when changing lanes, so when I moved to America, I was shocked to see how few people bother. In a public-spirited attempt to correct them, when I drove I began using a gesture called the “Admonitory Finger”—wagging my index finger back and forth as if scolding a small child. Unfortunately, this gesture did not work as well as I had hoped. Sometimes people mistook it for the Finger (although technically I used a different digit) and responded in kind. Sometimes, people did reform their signaling (but only if I chased them up the highway). Mostly, they just ignored me. Then, one suffocating, humid day in Boston, I used the Admonitory Finger on a middle-aged man in an SUV. Already frustrated by the heat and traffic, he snapped, turning the Admonitory Finger into a malicious dance. Stuck by his side in the gridlocked traffic, I was forced to watch as he waggled both index fingers and waved his arms in the air, a fiendish grin on his face. His satirical pantomime seemed to go on and on. I never used the Admonitory Finger again.

At that moment, I gave up my naïve belief that I could change other people’s behavior and make America more like England. Later, I adopted a new gesture, “Existential Hands.” One turns one’s palms to the sky, perhaps with a slight shrug, as if to say: “You ought to signal when changing lanes, but since life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, it matters little whether you reform your ways.” People didn’t like Existential Hands, but they liked them a lot better than the Admonitory Finger.

When I moved to San Francisco, I rarely got a chance to use Existential Hands, since I walked nearly everywhere. From time to time, when I was crossing the road, someone would nearly run me over, usually a driver talking on their cell. As a civic contribution, I invented another gesture, “Disapproving Hand Phone.” I paused in front of the vehicle, put my hand to my ear in a phone shape, and raised my eyebrows. Of course, most people just carried right on with their phone conversation (although one or two revved their engines).

As I became happier, more relaxed, more tolerant—more Californian—I wondered if I should drop the Disapproving Hand Phone. After all, you can’t change other people, you can only change yourself (and then only with extensive talk therapy). If you try to change other people, all you do is annoy them. Besides, I told myself, these people would be punished in their next incarnations.

But this morning, my faith in annoying hand gestures was restored. As I was crossing the road on my way to yoga, a man in a sleek sports car noticed me at the last minute and screeched to a halt. Of course he was on the phone. Automatically, my hand flew to my ear in a phone shape, but for some reason, instead of raising my eyebrows, I smiled. To my amazement, instead of ignoring me, he raised two fingers from the steering wheel and gave a tiny, apologetic nod.


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