LS: Bruce Cameron Column November 16, 2008
My father is taller than I am. I take after my mother, who is descended from a long line of tiny people who were bred by German royalty to climb into tunnels to hunt rodents. This means it’s awkward to hug my father — but it was always awkward, because we’re from the part of the country where men can show affection only by insulting each other’s snowmobiles.
When greeting each other, my father and I first exchange stiff handshakes, as if we’ve just negotiated a government bailout. Then I pull on his hand to bring him closer, his eyes growing large in alarm, like maybe I’m going to flip him over my shoulder. We seize each other’s shoulders like Greco-Roman wrestlers, reluctant to close the distance between our two bodies.
Finally, he stoops, I gouge him painfully in the shoulder with my chin, and we break apart with a gasp of relief.
My son thankfully passed up the shortness genes when he was selecting his DNA — so he’s even taller than my dad. Hugging him means I need to stand on tiptoes as I give him a quick embrace, like a prom date saying goodnight to her escort in a Normal Rockwell painting.
It’s not that I mind hugging people — I actually sort of like it. It’s just that I was never trained in it, never had the rules of engagement explained to me. Look, I’m sure I’d enjoy flying an airplane, too, but I’ve never taken a lesson and doubt anyone on board wants me landing the next jet to Miami.
I’m not sure what people expect from me: Do they want a simple hug, a hug and a kiss, maybe a hug, kiss and a triple Axel?
To me, kissing is even more incomprehensible. Take the “air kiss,” where one completely misses connecting with the other person’s face and winds up smacking at the air like a carp in low water.
What’s the message of such a thing? “I’d kiss you, but I can’t steer my own lips”? No one has ever instructed me on when to use the air kiss, though I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t deploy it if it were the first time I was meeting my tax auditor.
Actually, pressing my lips onto another person’s face seems shockingly intimate. I remember watching Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev negotiate a nuclear-arms treaty: At the end of it, Carter had to endure a big smooch from the Soviet leader. As a teenage boy, I was so grossed out I decided that if it had been me, I would have opted for nuclear war.
Women are easier — I like kissing women, though, again, I’ve had very little on-the-job training in this arena. If I understand what is expected of me, I’m more than willing to kiss the cheeks of ladies, so long as they aren’t too much taller than me.
A few years ago, I was on the set of the TV show “8 Simple Rules,” where an episode I’d written was being filmed. At the end of it, the actress Katey Sagal came over to chat with me. As the conversation grew to a close, she leaned in, obviously expecting some sort of personal contact between us.
I was utterly baffled. She was a star, while I had come to understand that my social stature, as a writer, was roughly the same as the vermin my ancestors used to hunt for in tunnels. What should I do? Air-kiss her? Squeeze her shoulder? Pick up her dry cleaning?
I settled for a rigid handshake, followed by a jerky hug and a kiss on the unexplored area southwest of her right ear. It could not have been more awkward if I’d patted her on the fanny and called her “Toots.”
Then there’s the European greeting, which somehow involves both cheeks and grabbing hold of the other person’s hand as if getting ready for a do-si-do. Good Lord! Try to figure that one out — it’d be easier to pass the LSATs.
Isn’t there a school I can go to where they teach this stuff?
You can tell I’m upset, here.
I need a hug.
To write Bruce Cameron, visit his Web site at http://www.wbrucecameron.com.