It’s all in the hands

By Brian Doyle | March 1, 2013


One of my absorptions in life, along with hawks and Robert Louis Stevenson, Van Morrison and basketball, is craft. How does someone who does a thing surpassingly well do the thing that he or she does so well? I am not as interested in art as I am in craft—the workmanlike execution of a skill that has been honed and practiced to the point where often the practitioner has achieved a playful thoughtlessness, an unconscious awareness, a relaxed intensity. People who have arrived at this sort of unlabored mastery are often remarkably eloquent about what they do. My friend the detective, for example, told me all sorts of subtle, riveting things about his craft one morning.

You learn to listen, he says. That’s the greatest skill. And you learn most to listen for what people aren’t saying. You learn attentiveness. I pay much closer attention to faces and the way people walk and the way they sit comfortably or uncomfortably. Hands are a great key to people. Where are their hands? People’s emotions are in their hands. I learned this first as a street cop—when you approach a traffic stop the first thing you look for are the driver’s hands. You want both of them, starting with the right hand. If it’s down on the passenger seat you worry. You stay in the blind spot, in that case, and approach with caution.

You also learn to relax while working hard, he says. Know what I mean? Like when you follow someone on foot. Never hurry, never stand still. Never wear a disguise. Disguises inevitably make you nervous, and suspects can feel that. Never wear bright colors or black. Just dress normally in gray and brown. You can follow someone from in front, you know. Just walk casually ahead of him. Almost always it’s a guy, and guys don’t pay attention to other people when they walk. Women do. Women have rape radar.

Even in confrontations it pays to relax, he says. Make a joke. Throw them off. Change the subject. Ask about sports. Anything to surprise them and change directions. You’d be surprised how often that works to cut the heat.

But I never get cocky. I never think I know everything about the craft. There’s always more to learn. Because people are just not similar, or consistent. They’re not. Fact. You could spend your whole life studying just one person, and you would hardly get anywhere.

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