I tend to book a window seat in the last row when I check in for a flight. WestJet lets you check in 24 hours before you fly, and I like to get as close to that 24 hour mark as possible to book what I slyly figure is a spot undesirable enough that it will keep others from selecting the seat beside me. This tactic often works, but didn’t last Sunday when I flew back to Edmonton after a lovely weeklong trip to see family.
There was a woman sitting in the seat beside mine who had that same, “Please don’t sit here, please don’t sit here” face I adopt when I’m watching others board. She gamely got up to let me sit down and we studiously ignored each other for the entire flight. She was a big person, broad and overweight, and she didn’t fit very comfortably into her seat. At 6’1”, neither did I. Those seats are built for no one’s body, and our bodies touched the entire flight. It’s an odd sensation, being hip to hip to a stranger for two hours, but we were, and maybe that’s why we couldn’t comfortably talk to each other. I couldn’t be mad at this woman, for whom flying has to be an uncomfortable experience, but on the other hand, maybe she flies all the time and doesn’t think anything of it. Had it been an international flight spanning several hours, maybe our mutual discomfort would have made us tense and irritable, but as it was, I was fine with this forced snuggle.
Dr. Jon was waiting to board a flight earlier this year where he saw parents waiting at the gate with two young children. The girl was being cute and dancing and twirling, and Dad completely ignored her. At one point, she went in to give her grumpy father a hug and kiss and he shooed her away because he was doing something on his iPad. I know travelling with kids must be awful, but Jesus Christ, hug and kiss your damn kid!
I bring up these two stories of flight because they illustrate how resistant we are to touching each other, even among loved ones. I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions (mostly because what is this blog if not that), but if there was something I’d want to pay more attention to in 2015, it’s this.
Dream: Touch more people.
Goal: Achievable, I guess. I know it sounds so creepy to say that I want to be in more physical contact with people, but it’s true. I noticed over the holidays that I’ve grown rusty when it comes to my hugging, if such a thing is possible. I’m all chin and shoulders somehow. Plus, I’m constantly paranoid that I smell bad, or that the person I’m hugging doesn’t want to be hugged and I’m torturing them with my spindly arms and pizza gut. I read this article once that said you’re not supposed to hug and kiss children that aren’t yours without asking permission of them, because you “rob children of agency over their own bodies.” I guess I can see that, but if I can’t squeeze the squirmy little lovebugs of friends of mine without getting everyone to sign a notarized document, that’s a real drag.
Plan: Touch more people.
This is one of those problems where the answer is inherent to the question. If I want to have more physical contact with people, I’ll just become a more touchy-feely guy. But how does one do that?
I could be in a play. I haven’t done any acting in a while, and while I’m pleased to be on the writing side of things for now, and I certainly don’t miss auditioning, I do much the insane amount of physical closeness that seems part of the process of making theatre. I went through a four year acting program and, while I didn’t have sex with any of my classmates, I can’t believe I didn’t graduate with an STD. Everyone’s always hugging and kissing, onstage and off. Or adjusting eachother’s bodies to optimum posture, or feeling someone’s diaphragm to ensure the right kind of breathing. Or you’re building human pyramids in some fruitless exercise, or starting classes with massage chains, or pounding on someone’s back while they sing. I didn’t even notice it while it was happening, but now that I’ve got an office job, I probably can’t run my hand up the spine of a coworker to check their alignment without getting a complaint sent to Human Resources.
The most tactile and physically demonstrative person I’ve ever met was in a play with me. I’ll call her Jill in case she reads this and is weirded out by my description of her. I could be misremembering, but I think Jill hugged me warmly the first time we met, and she was like that with everybody. We played a couple in the show, and we would kiss and hug without any initial awkwardness or jitters, but she would also grab my hand impulsively in rehearsals, or sling an arm over whomever she was sitting beside. Again, this wasn’t just me, she was like that with everybody. There was something so warm and friendly about Jill, and everyone was incredibly drawn to her, and I’m sure they continue to be. It wasn’t like she and I were best pals that connected on every level either. We were perfectly nice to each other and chatted backstage and whatnot, but it’s not as if we had a deep abiding love for each other, or a mystical connection that transcended beyond friendship. And yet I will always feel incredibly connected to her because she was so, for lack of a better term, touchy-feely.
I wish I could find it again, but I read a really interesting article recently disparaging the fact that men, and straight men in particular, suffer from such a lack of physical contact, and it’s such a shame. And it’s really true! Not to engage in stereotyping, but women and gay men tend to be physically affectionate with each other and it’s not weird. But straight men must only ever get physical attention from their partners in a sexual context, and that’s about it. I don’t know how that gets fixed. I suppose I have straight male friends that I will hug, but not nearly with the frequency as my female friends. There’s a Friends episode I remember where two of the guys (Joey and Ross, I think?) fall asleep on each other once and realize they have amazing naps together. Of course the situation is played for laughs, and once they are discovered, they stop, but why is that such a problem, culturally?
The other side of this coin, of course, is that I’m a fella and I may not be strong, but I’m tall and imposing. That is to say, no one’s physical presence or attention has ever been a threat to me, ever. I’ve never been hit, or slugged in the gut, and I’ve certainly never been into (or really understood) anything rough or painful when it comes to sex, so touch is always a good experience. A stranger grabbed my ass in a crowded bar once, and all I felt was flattered. I spun around in surprise, but also gratitude, as he vanished into the throng. I wanted to find him and ask for a rating out of ten. So maybe I’m only seeing the good side of physical contact because that’s all I have ever experienced, and asking everyone to be more physically demonstrative is asking too much.
That said, something’s gotta change. I wear headphones at work, and if someone tries to get my attention by placing a hand on my shoulder, I act as if someone’s just fired a gun into the air. I jump three feet and spin around and can’t seem to temper that reaction. I have to get my hug back and I can’t turn into one of those people who genuinely doesn’t like to be touched. I mean, there are some things I can’t abide (don’t ever pat my head, I’ll tear your fucking arms off), but otherwise, let’s walk hand in hand when next we meet, or institute a kiss hello. I won’t think it’s weird if you won’t. I hope to see most of you in 2015, so let’s make a change! Here’s to a Happy New Year, the fun adventures that await us all, and staying in touch.