Occult Hand strikes back

Posted: Dec 06, 2006 12:01 AM

When I opened the e-mail from a reporter at the Chicago Tribune back in 2004, I knew the game was up. He was doing a story about the Order of the Occult Hand, and wanted to know how it got started. I knew we'd be caught eventually, and eventually had arrived. I decided I might as well come clean:

It was at a long-ago convention of editorial writers - yes, even as anarchic a bunch as editorial writers have conventions - that I noticed some knowing smiles when one of the group started a sentence with, "It was as if an occult handŠ."

Except for the knowing smiles, the phrase might have gone unnoticed. Which is the object of the game. It seems that years ago some young reporters - maybe with the AP - decided to see if they could slip that telltale phrase past the copy desk and into the paper. It was an inside joke, if more inside than joke.

Maybe you had to be a young AP reporter required to write countless routine, fill-in-the-blank stories to appreciate this little game. It's a harmless enough diversion. And less serious an infraction than inserting a second baseman named In Cognito into the box scores.

It was a lot easier to keep the Order of the Occult Hand a secret before Google. Now all an ace reporter need do is type in the suspect phrase and, bingo, he's got a list of all of us co-conspirators.

In mitigation, allow me to plead that a mention of the occult hand may provide the only bright spot in still another of those thumbsuckers entitled "Whither NATO?" or "End Unfunded Federal Mandates."

Admittedly, some candidates for the Order never should have been accepted. These were the lazy types who threw the magic phrase into their copy so artlessly it stuck out like a sore metaphor and gave the whole conspiracy away. ("It was as if an occult hand had strewn federal programs with unfunded mandatesŠ.")

The object of the game wasn't just to use the phrase but to use it with some subtlety. The clumsy types eventually exposed us all - like an American spy in a bad World War II movie who forgets to use his knife and fork in the European manner.

Of course I knew we'd get caught some day. Some investigative journalist with nothing more important to investigate was bound to turn his attention to us on a slow day. So when the inevitable e-mail arrived, as if delivered by an occult hand, I offered no resistance. ("It's been a terrible burden keeping the secret to myself all these years," said the suspect. "I knew I'd be caught sooner or later. Now I feel only relief.")

But I couldn't just let the Order die. It had become a tradition! So at the next annual editorial writers' convention, I called an after-hours meeting of all those who might be interested in adopting a new secret phrase. It couldn't be just a simple piece of purple-as-a-bruise prose that would leap out of our copy as if written in neon. What we needed was some language bad enough to be spotted by the cognoscenti but likely to get past the casual copyreader. Call it lavender prose.

There were a number of nominations, and it wasn't easy picking a winner. Among the runners-up were "hanging over the scene like a shroud" and "like a soft, warm, weird breeze blowing aimlessly through the palms." Which did we pick? I'll never tell.

But I'm proud to report that the Order is in business again with, at last count, 11 certified members who've submitted proof that they've actually snuck the magic phrase into a reputable publication, 14 candidates who have yet to submit their documentation, and one honorary member who seems to spin out this kind of prose naturally.

All decisions on admission are final and I make them, having taken the precaution of appointing myself Supreme Poobah, Benevolent Dictator, or Exalted Whatever of the Order. Which simplifies administration considerably.

We have yet to come up with a secret handshake or formal robes, but I'm working on it. Maybe I'll start with a T-shirt. A secret society can't have too much advertising.