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Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections: Time, Death and Stories

Cover of Sandman, Vol. 6, Fables and ReflectionsTitle: Fables and Reflections (Sandman, Volume 6)

Author: Neil Gaiman, with artists

Publication Date: 1993

LC Call Number: PN6727.G35S26

Sandman has never been a single coherent narrative; there is an ongoing story into which many smaller stories have been woven. Fables and Reflections is one of the volumes which presents a collection of shorter stories that don’t necessarily have much to do with the larger narrative or with each other. There is a theme among the stories in this volume, however; except for the short prologue, “Fear of Falling” and one other story, they are all historical or mythical in nature. There isn’t a huge distinction made here between history and myth; both are kinds of stories, after all. “Three Septembers and a January” is a story about the self-styled Emperor Norton of the United States (he is also of interest to a certain brilliant cartoonist with an interest in history). “Thermidor” continues the story of Johanna Constantine, whom we’ve seen a couple times before, and who is now living through the French Revolution. “The Hunt”is a supposedly Eastern European folktale told by an old man. “August” focuses on the Roman Emperor Augustus. “Soft Places” is something of a ghost story about Marco Polo (and an old friend from Volume Three turns up here). “The Song of Orpheus” is a retelling of the story of the mythical Greek bard, Morpheus’s son. “A Parliament of Rooks” is the oddball story, set in the future, but with a visit to the Dreaming, where we catch up with Cain and Abel again and consider the nature of storytelling. “Ramadan” is set in the quasi-mythical Baghdad of Haroun al Raschid and is drawn in a completely different style.

Oh, and from here on out, there may well be spoilers, but they don’t much damage the experience for this.

Time is an interesting consideration in these stories. The observant reader will have noticed that most of them are named after months: not just months in the Western calendar such as September, January, and August, but also Thermidor, which was a month in the revolutionary calendar, and of course, Ramadan, a month in the Muslim calendar. It’s curious to place this much emphasis on time, because while Dream and the other Endless are not time-travelers, they show up so casually at so many different historical moments that it’s sometimes hard to remember that they aren’t, especially since the series moves so freely from one time in history to another. But this volume isn’t really about Dream; it’s mostly about mortals, although Death is very important in “The Song of Orpheus.”

The two stories that are put most in dialogue here are “August” and “Ramadan.” Both are about very powerful men who rule impressive empires, and in a way, both are presented with the same choice. In “August,” Augustus is very careful to distinguish between his public self and his personal self. He reminisces with an actor about another actor whom he had killed due to an insult to Rome; personal insults are not important to him. He does so while disguised as a beggar; that is, he is abandoning his official identity for one day. Eventually we learn that Dream advised him to do so, after speaking with Terminus, god of boundaries, so that he can make decisions not observed by the Roman gods and in particular the newly-divine Julius Caesar. He is free, under these circumstances, to intentionally make decisions which lead to the fall of Rome, apparently as a form of revenge for the abuse he suffered at the hands of that same Julius. Ultimately, the boundary between his personal and official identities does not survive—but then, it is of course Julius who began by violating boundaries. Contrast with “Ramadan,” in which Haroun al-Raschid lives in a fantastical version of Baghdad in which everything is apparently perfect. Foolishly, he summons Dream, because he wants to ensure that his kingdom will live and be remembered forever. He has apparently been reading “Ozymandias” (well—figuratively!), or at any rate he has been seized with the fear that not only will his empire fall, it will be forgotten. His deal with Dream is that Dream will take the city, so that it will be permanently remembered in its perfect state. Dream complies, so that Baghdad becomes a dream-city and the real city is reduced to a place you wouldn’t want to live. So—one of these rulers chooses to think of the city and attempts to preserve it for the future, but does so in a way that destroys it in the present. He overlooks his personal well-being and that of everyone else, and gets a story in return. The other acts out of anger; when he is not observed, he chooses to pursue his own goals rather than enriching the empire he rules, chooses to break it down. Either way, these cities are impermanent; when these decisions are juxtaposed in this way, it becomes clear that whatever decision people make will lead to destruction. So the emphasis on time is perhaps an emphasis on the way that mortals occupy a particular, fixed moment.

At the same time, the reader is not encouraged to invest particularly in the survival of either empire. Both already belong somewhere in the past in the mind of the reader. “August” emphasizes how difficult it is for Augustus to rule over Rome and the sometimes unjust decisions he has ended up making (there seems not to be a right of free speech in Rome). There is a sense that the Roman empire is a great achievement, but it is certainly not inviting and there is not much sense of loss in its fall. “Ramadan,” features a less introspective character and must find another way to do this; it achieves distance from the reader by means of a less realistic art style and the use of formalized language as one might find in a fairy tale. The ultimate fate of Baghdad justifies these stylistic changes, but again, the reader never feels that perhaps Baghdad will survive forever.

There may be something intelligent to say about choosing a different and more mystical style for the one story in the book that takes place in a non-western setting, but I’m not the one to say it. The same is true of casting Augustus Caesar as a rape victim—what does this do to the story, and is it an ethical use of that particular storytelling element? These things should be addressed, but I don’t feel able to evaluate it.

In any case, we do know what Death thinks of these rulers by her words to Emperor Norton: “I’ve met a lot of kings, and emperors, and heads of state in my time, Joshua. I’ve met them all. And you know something? I think I liked you best.” This isn’t a surprise; Norton, despite his grandiose ideas about himself, is infinitely more likable than either of them, but there’s a bit more of an explanation of it in “The Song of Orpheus.” As in the myth, Orpheus is unable to accept the death of his wife, Eurydice. Unlike the myth, he goes to speak to his aunt Death about it. (Incidentally, the scenes where he wanders bewildered around Death’s place, which she keeps like a twentieth-century suburban house with goldfish and tacky teddy bears, is possibly my favorite thing ever.) She tells him, “It was her time to go, Orpheus. People die. It’s okay. It happens.” She does help him, but she doesn’t approve. She believes in the universality of endings and dislikes the struggle for immortality. She tells him, in fact, “I don’t need to know the future. When the future’s over, then it’s me…

…yes, there is really no contest over who is the best character in Sandman.

So there’s a lot here about power and mortality. Orpheus, of course, actually becomes immortal as a result of his failed attempt to recover Eurydice. We see him in “Thermidor,” which, curiously, is actually placed before “The Song of Orpheus” in the book. Thus, we already know that he will become immortal, and that this will not be an ideal situation for him because he is carted around as a head after his encounter with the Bacchae. Even before that, he has sunk into a deep depression following the loss of Eurydice. We’ve seen another immortal human in this series, Hob Gadling, who seems to rather enjoy it, although he has his ups and downs. Orpheus is different; he is punished quite severely for his presumption. Partly this is because he was in a fight with Dream, who subsequently abandoned him. As readers, we are not surprised; Dream is not an especially forgiving person. But there’s also a sense that he should have known better. In “Thermidor,” he is something of a MacGuffin for a while; Johanna carries him around and protects him from the powerful, at Dream’s behest. So there is still a connection between them. In fact, when Johanna offers to visit him again, at a later point in her travels, he tells her, “I do not think that would be a good idea, Johanna.” This precisely echoes Dream’s words to Calliope when she asks, after he rescues her, whether she will be able to see him again. The implication is ambiguous, but Orpheus is speaking on that very page of his desire to be reunited with his father. Well, now that Dream has forgiven two of his exes, maybe his son is next?

So, there is a thread about time and mortality running through this volume. There is also a thread about storytelling, and it should be clear by now that some of the stories I’ve already mentioned touch on this themselves. The most explicit stories in this regard, however, are “The Hunt” and “The Parliament of Rooks.” “The Hunt” features an old trope: an old man tells a story to his unappreciative granddaughter. She isn’t sure she wants to hear it, interrupts several times, and criticizes the story at the end. Curiously, it’s really a story about a book, which Dream’s librarians Lucien (a fine comic character) wishes to retrieve from him. The storyteller knows exactly what the story means to him. He expresses irritation at the interruptions of his granddaughter and expounds on his meaning when she argues with him. But, her objections are also valid. She points out certain ambiguities and inconsistencies in the story, and has her own reading of it which the text doesn’t appear to invalidate. She raises an eyebrow at the assertion that it is a story of the old country, complains that it is a sexist and insular, and, because she understands that stories are told in a particular context, suspects that it is aimed at her. Are we supposed to see her as wrong? We do have sympathy for the storyteller and we see that she is missing what he thinks is the point, but I don’t know. She’s pretty smart, and stories don’t necessarily belong to the teller.

We see a similar dynamic in “The Parliament of Rooks,” in which Cain, Abel and Eve come together to tell their stories to a human child (Lyta’s child, who has wandered into their world). Eve tells the story of the three wives of Adam, and she provides several readings of this story, explains their uses, and refuses to privilege any one of them. Abel tells his own story about his conflicts with his brother and how they came to live in Dream’s country, but he is aware of the context in which he is telling it and makes it into an especially bizarre children’s story. This involves a picture of young Dream and young Death which may be my other favorite thing ever. In any case, Cain constantly interrupts him this story in a rage at his attempt to make it appropriate for children: “What are you trying to feed the child—sanitized pablum? Li’l Death? Li’l Morpheus? Revolting!” He doesn’t approve of the cuteness of it, and he certainly doesn’t approve of the glossing over of the nature of the sheep as a sacrifice. Ultimately, Abel makes it seem as if he was happy to live with Cain forever, which we’ve seen in prior volumes is certainly not the case. Where is Gaiman’s sympathy here? Wellll…. Okay. So the deficiencies of the story point up some of the things that Gaiman tries to do both here and in other works, in showing that the gods are not nice. (Exhibit A: American Gods.). So Cain is certainly correct on those grounds. The ending of the story, too, makes the reader feel deeply uneasy because it’s simply untrue. At the same time, however, Cain is being a jerk by interrupting the story and attempting to wrest Abel’s voice from him, and as Eve notes, when he is telling the story, Abel does not stutter as he usually does.

So this is ambiguous again. Telling a story is not an innocent act. Both Abel and the grandfather of “The Hunt” have an agenda. And in both cases, I’d argue that reading the story critically characters within it do is legitimate. However, they don’t read all the agendas as well as they think they do. So, while Fables and Reflections isn’t exactly an argument against criticism, it casts a wary and slightly amused glance at it.

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A Game of You: So about Wanda…

Cover of A Game of You Author: Neil Gaiman

Illustrators: Colleen Doran, Shawn McManus, Brian Talbot

Year of Publication: 1993

LC Call Number: PN6728.S26 G35

The fifth installment of Sandman is a really strange one; the tone is very different from the rest of the series, and the subject matter, while related, seems different, not least because Dream himself plays such a minor role.  At this point in the series, there are many established characters who have drifted in and out during various storylines. A Game of You, however, is structured around a formerly minor human character, Barbie, last seen in The Doll’s House having detailed dreams in the mode of high fantasy.  She’s left her boyfriend Ken (yup) and has moved from the strange house in Florida where Rose Walker became the vortex to a seedy tenement in New York. She’s stopped dreaming, and the volume focuses on her relationship with the dream that we saw in her earlier appearance.  Morpheus is barely seen; he puts in an appearance early on to comment that one of the skerries of dream is about to disintegrate, and of course he arrives at the end to put everything right—not because he is a deus ex machina so much as because this is his job. By this point in the series, we expect that.

Because the volume pulls in a minor character and focuses on her story, the moments in this volume which call back to the prior stories feel less like continuity and more like references.  There is Barbie’s dream, of course. When Foxglove turns out to be Donna, Judy’s friend from Preludes and Nocturnes, this is enlightening not because it tells us anything about Fox herself, but because it reminds us of the events in the diner that Judy experienced, and the feeling of trapped helplessness that went with it.  The reference to Rose Walker doesn’t pull the story into a neat line with the rest of the series, especially since it’s made to a character who has no way of understanding it;  it does, however,  inspire an oddly ominous sense that everything is weirdly interconnected in this world through a series of uncanny (in the Freudian sense) coincidences.

I enjoy this sort of story, and the sense that it is set aside from the main storyline, although of course it can be executed more or less well.  However, I can’t focus on this in my post because I really need to write about the portrayal of Wanda.

Wanda is Barbie’s best friend and another occupant of the building.  She is Barbie’s confidant in the early pages of this volume and, when the dream attack occurs, it is Wanda who provides entry into Barbie’s apartment and stands guard over her body as the other characters try to follow her into the dream world.  Now.  Wanda is transsexual, and I’m not hugely impressed by how her gender identity is handled in the book.  The portion of the plot that occurs in the “real” world mostly happens at night after the characters have been unexpectedly awakened by Thessaly’s detection of the dream attack.  She gets all the other inhabitants of the building out of bed and brings them downstairs to the culprit’s apartment, where she has murdered him.  The group includes a lesbian couple (Foxglove and Hazel), Thessaly (who turns out to be a witch), Wanda and Barbie, who cannot be awakened. All the characters but Wanda have either thrown on bathrobes or are wearing pajamas, but Wanda is wearing an undershirt and panties.  It’s reasonable and realistic that there would be some variety to what the characters choose to wear to bed, of course, but because this is a graphic novel, this means that Wanda’s body is put on display for the reader to examine for signs of femininity or masculinity.  The other characters are not so exposed. There are a few panels of Foxglove before she puts a on a shirt, but that lasts for a much shorter portion of the book.  Furthermore, Wanda’s gender and her body are discussed by several of the other characters in these scenes.  The reader is thus implicitly invited to notice these characteristics of her body. She hasn’t had surgery—her dream suggests that she is afraid to be operated upon—so her body does have some characteristics generally associated with masculinity, including a penis. In fact, Hazel, who is, ah, somewhat anatomically naïve, points at it and says “you have a thingy.” The art here makes me think back to Whipping Girl (see my post), in which Julia Serano writes about how, when she comes out to people as trans, the get this look on their faces as if they are examining her body closely for signs of masculinity. I can’t help but feel that the same thing is happening here.

Of course, there’s also the textual aspect of the story, which is somewhat equivocal.  As mentioned above, the other characters frequently comment on Wanda’s gender. Thessaly, who emerges around the middle of the volume as the only character with any knowledge about the dream world, dismisses her as a “man” and doesn’t ask her to walk the moon’s road with the others.  George, formerly a servant of the Cuckoo (that is, the villain of Barbie’s dream) and presently a severed face nailed to the wall (yes, this is pretty gross), explains to Wanda that this is because the moon won’t accept her as a woman and that her subjective gender identity doesn’t matter to the gods.  It’s a complicated scene to analyze because, while the reader is very sympathetic to Wanda’s rage, the scene also establishes the other world as one that enacts its own notions of what gender is and means, and in a nondiscursive way, no less. When Wanda states firmly “That’s something the gods can take and stuff up their sacred recta. I know what I am,” it’s a moment in which you want to cheer for her, but it’s also an expression of an impotent rage against something that won’t change.  This is just after Wanda has a Cuckoo-induced dream in which her body becomes increasingly masculine while she is about to be forced into surgery (and is misgendered by superheroes).  Later, in the dream world, the Cuckoo explains that girls are different from boys because they engage in different fantasies, different dreams. So it appears throughout the volume that the supernatural half of reality is not only bounded by gender but also regards gender as a fixed quantity which is determined by it, not you.

BUT.  There’s a late save.  All the commentary in which characters engage concerning the nature of gender earlier in the volume is just that, commentary, and is not proven.  The only time that Wanda interacts directly with the supernatural is when she is seen with Death. And Death, who is probably my favorite character in all of Sandman, gets it.  At this moment, Wanda’s body is transformed; Barbie describes her as “perfect.”  Death doesn’t reject Wanda but rather takes her in as the version of herself that she (Wanda, I mean, not Death) presumably imagines and desires.  Now, this could just be because Death is awesome. It’s obviously very difficult to tell whether this happens because Death’s magic is very different from Thessaly’s moon-magic and the dream world,* or because Thessaly is actually wrong.  What is suggestive, though, is that this takes place in Barbie’s dream. So—it’s not clear. It leaves the rest of the book in question, which is good—but it’s not entirely satisfying.

The non-supernatural characters also react to Wanda in differing ways. Thessaly’s already been mentioned. There’s also the homeless woman who questions what Wanda is and doesn’t seem to totally understand, but is at least nice to her.  And then, of course, there’s Wanda’s horrible family, because apparently there is some law that trans characters can never have even vaguely supportive families in fiction.  Sigh. But the last part of the volume is about Barbie, who truly is a friend to Wanda, interacting with Wanda’s family and trying to maintain some integrity by not entirely complying with their demands that she refer to Wanda by a masculine name and pronouns, etc. Ultimately, she engages in a small act of defiance that’s really as much about her as it is about Wanda, but it is meaningful in its way. So I guess I’m not sure what to make of the way Wanda is handled in this side of the story, either.  If I go back to Serano, who complains that there are really only two ways that trans characters are portrayed in fiction (by cis people, anyway), Wanda’s very much the tragic figure—but at least she has some character beyond that.

The thing I wish I could do is put this in context with the rest of the volume, because it does change things.  This is really a story about gender in lots of ways. The central character is Barbie. We’ve already met her in another volume in which her femininity seemed rather extreme and a little unsettling—she’s not called Barbie for nothing.  The way she works through her childhood and her own gender throughout the book is pretty important and not something I’m able to readily make sense of. There’s the fact that most of the characters in the book are female, and it’s all about how they interact with each other, sometimes to protect each other and sometimes with their own agendas.  There’s the pregnant lesbian, and the witch who does exclusively feminine magic. But I can’t really do that analysis well, at least not on a single read, partly because I’m distracted by my wish to analyze the way Wanda is portrayed, and partly because I just don’t have room. So I’ll just note that there is more to it than this and leave it at that.

(interesting that there’s much more than I can cover, even on that particular topic, in what is really a very short book. Is this because it’s a graphic novel, or because it’s just that deep? Or because I’m inefficient? NOBODY KNOWS.)

*these are also separate realms and different kinds of magic, in case that isn’t clear.

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The Sandman: Images & Immersion

Cover of The Sandman: The Doll's HouseCover of The Sandman: Dream CountryCover of The Sandman: Season of Mists

Titles: The Sandman, Volumes 2-4 (The Doll’s House, Dream Country, Season of Mists)

Author: Neil Gaiman. Many other people worked on this, and their work is important, but I can’t possibly list them all and don’t feel comfortable picking and choosing, so see the series’s Wikipedia page for more about them…

Publication Date:1990

LC Call Number: PN6728 .S26 G35

Years ago, back in my adjunct days, I picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman’s short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors, to read on the bus as I shuttled between campuses. This was early in the semester, with no papers to grade yet, so that time on the bus was temporarily mine.  It’s a very diverse collection of stories, including fantasy, horror, stories that read a little bit like fantasy and a little bit like personal anecdote, and even some poetry. Some were whimsical, some were serious, and some were just odd. I liked some of them better than others, but on the whole, I enjoyed the collection very much, and over the years, I kept coming back to Gaiman, until I’d read all his novels and both his short story collections.  He still has quite a bit of other work I haven’t read, of course,* and, delightfully, he keeps writing more, but the major thing I hadn’t read was Sandman.

I don’t read graphic novels, or I hadn’t.  It’s not that I had anything against them; actually, I’m all for the proliferation of different media in which stories can be told. I just hadn’t read any, and I found them a little intimidating. A lot of people say the opposite, but I’m an extremely text-oriented person.  Example: it was only about five years ago that I realized I should pay attention to what movies look like instead of just converting their dialogue into a script in my head and reading it. So it didn’t seem like graphic novels would be a good match for me. But I was interested in reading Sandman, and eventually succeeded in receiving Preludes and Nocturnes as a gift.  I was a little surprised how much I liked it, but still it took me a while to get the next three volumes in the series.  I finally did, though, and a few days ago, I finished reading up to this point.

I must admit that I feel terribly greedy when it comes to these books. I just want to take them away with me into a corner and consume them, page by page, like persimmon cookies. And then, possibly, I want to do it again. It’s that kind of addictive.  Additionally, at this point, I should probably stop pretending that I am too sophisticated a reader for this to happen to me. Heh. It’s a great thing, really—after all, sophistication has its price.  In any case, I stopped when I’d read all the books that I had, and on the whole, I think that’s a good thing. I’ll leave the rest for a while, so that I retain this feeling that there’s more and I can dip back into it when I get a chance.

In any case, I think part of this feeling of immersion came from the format.  As I say, images are an unfamiliar way for me to get information.  It feels a little… left-handed, for lack of a better term.**  It’s a type of reading I’m not used to doing and for which I need to use a different part of my brain, in addition to the parts I usually use.  I’m reminded a little bit of the intensity of watching Pan’s Labyrinth with subtitles; I could understand most of the spoken dialogue, but of course I was also reading the subtitles, and at the same time, I was assigning a verbal narrative to the action, so I was getting all the information in the movie in several different ways, and also the movie was both terrifying and fantastic.  The amount of attention demanded was so high that it was bound to be an immersive experience.  Sandman is similar. I read it slowly, making sure I looked carefully at the images as well as reading the text.  At first, this felt like cheating—getting information from illustrations!—but the art in a graphic novel is not an illustration. It is part of the text.  It really rewards this sort of reading, too.  The edition I read of Dream Country includes a script for “Calliope,” that is, the text that Gaiman provided to the artist, Kelley Jones. At one point, Dream shows up to tell an author that he is wrong to hold a Muse as prisoner, and he’s described in some detail, ending with the line:

                He is not pleased… Imagine a parent, or a cop, waiting for you to come home.

…and that was, actually, exactly what I’d thought when I saw it. So, there, I can read graphic novels.

So that’s what it’s like to read Sandman.  I can’t, at this point, get as analytic with it as I usually do in my posts.  Perhaps later. But I can list a few things that I noticed, or things that I loved, which I can at least gesture toward…

I love how the story appears at first to be a relatively uncomplicated one—just some slightly connected stories about Dream and his attempts to reclaim what he had lost during his imprisonment—but upon reading further, everything turns out to be connected and it’s a much bigger story than it at first appears.  When the story of Nada is told at the beginning of The Doll’s House, we’ve already seen her, and we know, or suspect, approximately how true it is (and yet we are still shocked, somehow).  Rose Walker being friends with Judy from Preludes and Nocturnes.  Morpheus escaping his imprisonment just in time to see Hob.  When you come at it sideways the way this story does, there’s a certain pleasure in discovering that things hold together, in a way there isn’t when a story is told more straightforwardly.  I feel sure I’ll see Charles Rowland again…

I love how, when I began to form objections or questions, they are answered, as if they’d already been there and were only waiting for me to notice them. I wondered, throughout much of Dream Country, why Dream would help Calliope and not Nada—and at the beginning of Seasons of Mists, Death and Desire bring this up with him.

I love how much of it is little allusions to everything in the world. I certainly don’t get all the references. I’m not a comics fan (as one might have guessed from my comments above!), so I don’t know a thing about John Constantine.  Similarly, the Chesterton references went over my head (should I do something about this?).  But then there’s the use of Shakespeare, there’s the invocation of Milton for the Hell storyline, there’s Calliope and the little reference to Orpheus and so on.  And then there’s the fact that Dream looks oddly like Robert Smith of the Cure—at least, sometimes he does.

I love the fact that the only rape joke I’ve noticed in the series so far is put in the mouth of a serial killer speaking to a room of serial killers.  (and that’s everything that needs to be said about rape jokes, you know.)

I love the character of Dream and the fact that, although he’s mostly sympathetic, we don’t entirely approve of him. He’s clever and serious and usually just. When he shows up, it is very often at a moment in which we will be pleased to see horrible characters get their comeuppance. At the same time, he is vengeful, perhaps too vengeful, and the things he does to people worry us.  Really, I felt no sympathy for Ric Madoc, but what happens to him is disturbing enough that I was relieved when Calliope called a halt to it. I am still concerned about Alexander Burgess, much as he may have deserved his fate. Dream is also a world-class sulker and terribly impressed with himself. Sometimes we are impressed with him, too. Sometimes not.  When Dream tells him what she thinks of his behavior over Nada, I was tempted to be charmed by Dream’s gallantry, and by how quick he is to take her seriously.  At the same time, I was exasperated by his need to be told this, ten thousand years later.

I love Death, too, but it’s almost impossible not to. And I love the fact that this book gives me an opportunity for the following reflection:

You know things have gotten weird when Death needs to wear running shoes.

Oh, there’s more, but I think this is all I can articulate for now…

*For instance, did you know he wrote an episode of Babylon 5? I didn’t, until I saw it! It was just like a Neil Gaiman short story!

**That is, for me, my right hand is the dominant one, so things that require this sort of perspective shift are like using my left hand.  If you are left-handed, then right-handed would be a better term for this feeling. If you’re ambidextrous, then I’d need a different analogy.

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