Saturday, July 12, 2014

High Fives and Hovering Butts: The Illusion of Touch

(Please allow yourself about 15 minutes to read this post, as there are videos along the way that should be watched when you get to them. Of course, you can do as you please, but I liken my posts to "performance pieces", if I can say that without sounding like a douche, that are best consumed as intended. Enjoy.)

We can never be sure what will move us to tears.

On a recent episode of "Cosmos", one of my favorite new shows, host Neil DeGrasse Tyson was discussing some of the smallest elements on the planet. 
One of the topics in this episode was the electrons that inhabit atoms, and how these electrons behave with each other. It seems that something interesting happens when atoms approach one another. The nature of electrons is to repel each other when in close proximity, and since we too are made of atoms and electrons, this means that while we can get really really close to something, we can never really "touch" it. This short video goes through the physics of the idea:

Ideas like this have the capacity to shake the foundations of how we think about the world. (If you ask me, these foundations could use a bit of shaking!) Now I am sure that you will say to me that it feels like we are touching something when we touch it, but what I will say back to you is that we are mistaken in thinking that what we are feeling at the moment is touching. What we are instead feeling is, as the video says, interaction at short distance. In other words, close, but no cigar. 

I tend to be a person who is drawn to the quiet rather than the loud; the hidden rather than the obvious; the under rather than the over. 
In June I participated on the AIDS Life/Cycle (ALC) ride, a fundraising bicycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles that is completed over a period of seven days.  On this ride, there are multiple opportunities for all of the circumstances I mention above. They are all present and necessary. Fundraising events, specifically, need to have any number of loud moments or else nobody would even be aware of the need to fund raise. With an event as large as ALC, it is certainly the loud moments that bring me in, but by contrast it is the quiet moments that keep me there. It would be a mistake to underestimate quiet moments as having less power, when in fact the opposite usually occurs. There is a huge difference between Celine Dion thumping her chest and belting a song, and someone like Bernadette Peters standing very still and gently singing, with minimal accompaniment. Both are telling love stories, but only the latter tells it believably. Quiet is powerful. 

If you have ever had the experience, as I have, of not being able to get physically close enough to someone in an intimate setting, then you might put more credence in the idea that we cannot really touch another. It certainly feels that way sometimes. But that sure doesn't stop us from trying. Touch is not just accomplished with skin on skin, but also with eyes, smell, sounds, and emotion. All of these are ways in which we literally have an effect on each other, on a cellular level. (If you doubt that cells get excited when they approach each other, try bringing your palms as close together as possible, without touching, and notice if you feel a bit of tingling.) Perhaps it is safe to say that when we are "touched", we have experienced a cellular shift in some way; touch is the act of cells responding to stimuli. Instead of thinking of touch as "contact", you might think of it as "excitation".  :-)

That is why a human gaze can start in motion all sorts of activity on the cellular level. In fact, sometimes a gaze is more powerful
than physical touch. I will often suggest to my couples clients that they try an exercise that involves gazing in each others eyes for a prolonged period of time; they report back that all kinds of feelings and truths emerge from the silent connection. I miss gazing. A form of gazing is cruising, the old school way of indicating your interest to another gay man. It is not done as often these days as it once was, because we are all gazing at something other than each other. 

Can you guess what?

On the ALC ride, as we cycled down the coast of California, I encountered dozens of strangers whom I had never met before and will probably never see again.
Bradley citizen manning the BBQ grill!
These were mostly the local supporters who, every year, come out to the road to cheer the riders on. In some cases, they even hand out goodies, such as fresh strawberries or licorice sticks, and in many locations they band together with other community members to offer a BBQ, bake sale, or ice cream social. 
Since the ride has been going on since 1994, some of these people have been doing this for years, and they plan for it and treat the ride as a special event when it comes through their town. 
This guy was everywhere!
It is heartening to be embraced in such a supportive way by complete strangers, and this strengthens one of the ride's core missions" to de-stigmatize HIV and AIDS (and gay people as well!). 

I am grateful to the people who offer us goodies, but I am also fascinated by the people who just come out to the road to watch us ride by. Generally, their watching is active, not passive; in other words, they are doing something to get our attention and offer support: waving, ringing bells, tooting horns, cheering, playing music, dancing, etc. It works! Rather than finding it distracting, I often found these activities to be just what I needed to continue pedaling up the hill or into the wind. These activities, through contact but not touch, actually caused a response on the cellular level resulting in greater riding strength. But then as I have explained, interaction at short distance is what touch really is, so does it matter if it is millimeters of distance or a few feet?

Locals setting up coffee and treats!

It is well known that touch is not only desirable, but essential to life. Babies cannot thrive and develop without it--do you know that babies evolved to be cuter than buttons so that we could not resist picking them up? Since they are born underdeveloped, they require stimulus to help finish the job. That comes in the form of all the ways of touching I mentioned previously. As adults, we are not done with touch though. As a social species, we require interaction at short distance quite frequently for both our emotional and mental well-being. (Why do you think that solitary confinement is such a brutal punishment?) In my therapy practice, one of the most popular goals with the couples I see is to increase the expression of physical affection in their relationship. People want to be touched more by their loved ones. They describe wanting not just more physical contact, but also more looking into each other's eyes, more reassuring texts throughout the day, more sharing of activities. Just because we are not literally touching, do not think that we don't need to get close to one another! 

Technology will NEVER replace "touch" as we are wired to experience it. 

On one of the days during the ride, we spent hours riding past the farmlands in the Salinas Valley--acres upon acres of crops in the flat heartland of California.
We would often see farm workers in the fields working or along the road taking breaks; they seemed to take in stride the hundreds of cyclists riding by in interesting get-ups. Perhaps they were used to us, or perhaps they were too tired to care. But one day, on a dusty residential street of shacks in between the endless fields, I came upon a group of young children lining the street with their arms extended out toward the riders. It seemed to me that these must be the children of the workers. They were small kids, maybe 5-7 years of age, and they were all Hispanic, and mostly boys. They stood in a line, and although there were probably 10-15 of them, they did not crowd each other or try to overlap one another. They just stood in a line, right arms extended out, fingers spread wide, faces beaming with excitement.

They were hoping for "high-fives". 

Here is the funny thing about high-fives. One story has them originating in the late 1970's between two professional baseball players, then evolving over a period of a few years into a gesture of gay pride in San Francisco (of all places!).
Nearly 40 years later, the high-five is utilized by people of all ages and cultures to initiate contact and camaraderie. And on one fine day on a dusty residential street in the first week of June in the middle of the Salinas Valley, I was confronted by a line-up of little high-five seekers, arms outstretched, feet tippy-toeing, faces smiling, eyes shining. So I did what any decent man would do. I high-fived every single one of their hands. Every single one of them.

I had to. When I saw their faces, it was immediately clear to me what a high-five from a rider would mean to them. Has anyone ever looked at you as though you are a hero? Well, let me tell you, it does not happen very often, but when it does, you better fucking act like a hero. When I came upon this line of kids, I just knew that this would be the most meaningful event of their day, no matter how many riders had passed before. It was not about me, it was about what I was doing. We were ALC riders. And to these kids, it appeared that we represented something that they may not see passing by their street that often: Hope. And for me, they offered something that I can't ever get enough of: the opportunity to matter. It sounds simple, doesn't it? It's just a high-five, after all, just two hands slapping in an interaction at short distance. But I will tell you this without any embellishment whatsoever: when I rode out of that dusty street after high-fiving a whole line of kids with shining eyes, I found myself shedding tears that streaked my sunscreen covered face--uncontrollable sobs in fact that threatened the equilibrium of my ride. Why was I sobbing? Because I had touched, and had been touched. I was sobbing because some kids along that dusty road had stretched out their arms and, in doing so, let me know that what I was doing was important and appreciated. Because in the shining eyes of farm-worker children, I saw the same hope that I have carried for decades: that we might realize that we are all the same and all want the same thing. This is the same hope everyone shares, whether you are a poor immigrant child or an HIV-positive person or a woman who struggles with self-image or a guy just going to the same job for 20 years. What is the common thing that we all want? To live well, with and among others, and to feel the life that we are living.

Crops to help us live well. 

In this day and age, I often marvel at the changes in culture based on how technology is progressing. Technology is wonderful, and I use it with appreciation and marvel, since it makes my life both comfortable, entertaining, and fantastic. And yet the dark side of technology is that part of it that distances me from my animal nature and the basic needs that go along with that.
When I sit in a chair, I am aware that I may be merely "hovering" above it, but I would rather do that than stand all day long. When I hug someone, I am aware that I am merely "interacting at short distance", but I would rather do that than shake hands. When I cry in front of someone, I am aware that I am merely "sending a message of empathy", but I would rather do that than text them :-( to them. "Touch", as I understand it, is hardwired into my DNA, as it is hardwired into yours. We cannot escape it. With 7 billion people on this planet, it makes sense that we are bound to interact at short distance quite frequently, and perhaps even intended to do so (for evolutionary reasons). When technology takes us further away from this experience (interaction at further distances), there are bound to be consequences. Technology cannot protect us from our nature. Our nature is not something we need to be protected from. 

If you think about it, there is a wonderful opportunity in having a body, in that we have something that can interact at short distance with others as often as we wish AND it is usually pleasurable! Considering the excitation levels of our cells when we do this, it makes sense to me that this desirable experience be sought out often. 

Not one of those kids on the street had a cell phone to take pictures or record the riders moving past. It is very possible that they did not have phones, but I also like to think that even if they did, they did not want anything diluting the experience of being fully present for those high-fives. People who are immersed in their phones rarely have eyes shining and arms outstretched, eager to engage with the world that is passing right in front of them. If you find that you don't get out into the world that often, I highly encourage you to increase your efforts to do so. Some will argue that being in social media sites is the same thing, but I would counter that it can supplement but not replace the real thing. Take a walk, ride a bike, go for a hike, get a cup of coffee. Leave the phone at home and look up into the world; look into the eyes of people on the street as they share the world with you. Scary, I know, but just notice what happens when you strike gold and "make contact". All kinds of stuff happens if you allow yourself time to interact at short distance. You might look away, but you might not. You might cry, you might smile. You might laugh, you might love. You might blush, you might challenge. You might flirt, you might flee. You just never know. You might even find yourself on the receiving end of a high-five. 

We can never be sure of what will move us to tears...but it usually involves TOUCH.

Coda: I am not against smartphones. The technology they promote is amazing beyond anything I ever could have ever dreamed up. And I don't hate people who are always on cell phones, though I often think that they could practice better manners and use more consideration, especially at the gym or at movie theaters. Rather, I see our culture as the culprit, and smartphones are merely an ingenious way to get around the disconnecting nature of modern life: a culture that separates and individualizes us until we find that we have nobody around us who cares. My beef with pervasive smartphone use is that it is the easy way out, but it hardly solves the problem. It is a technological bandaid on a systemic problem that is choking our nature as pack animals in real time, not virtual time. They exacerbate the problem by closing off almost all the remaining interaction at short distance we have on a daily basis. With sunglasses on, ear buds in, and eyes in the phone, the surrounding world is nearly invisible to you, and the effect on the world is that of not being seen. Not pleasant at all. What is the answer? I am afraid that I am not smart enough to know, but I think that "looking up" is a good first step. It's a good first step.