Tuesday, June 10, 2008

SWAMPOODLE REPORT: BUMPS & HUGS

Sam Smith

Having been an anthropology major, I am easily distracted from the business at hand by cultural idiosyncrasies. Take, for example, Barack and Michelle Obama doing the fist bump.

The incident brought back what was, for me, a long unresolved matter: when and why did athletes stop expressing joy and enthusiasm when they won something, replacing it with rigid, aggressive fist motions, arms raised as in the military salute of some exotic fascist land and an overall sense that what had happened was not cause for happiness but a triumph of vengeance. The losers, the victors seem to say with their hands and expressions, deserved to die.

Much the same shift has taken place in the more modest expressions used in greeting someone. In the 1960s, a typical greeting might involve hands meeting and then gently meeting again at the place where the thumb meets the palm, a motion both cool and warm. It is the shake I still prefer, despite it being considered grossly out of date. But then I come from a time when hip meant doing something a bit differently than the crowd, and when you have Baltimore Bullets guard Fred Carter, Barack Obama and Diane Feinstein all using the bump, it's time, like Miles Davis, to turn one's back on the audience.

The act of greeting evolved. For a while, many used a two stage shake followed by the hands reaching to the elbow and then slowly sliding back towards the wrist. A bit more complex, but still gentle and friendly.

And there were lots of other daps, as Wikipedia explains:

"Dap is a form of handshake that became popularized in the white mainstream society in the 1960s originating among African Americans. The term dap may have originated as an acronym for Dignity and Pride, (or may have been backronymed) and was popularly used by African American soldiers during the Vietnam War even though as a tradition it has existed in the African-American community for centuries. Though it can refer to many kinds of greeting involving hand contact, dap is best known as a complicated routine of shakes, slaps, snaps, and other contact that must be known completely by both parties involved, otherwise, an awkward but friendly improvisation occurs as the participants essentially mirror the jazz culture with creative forms of ordering the various moves of the hands with snaps, slaps, mutual knuckle bumps and finger waves (jazz hands).. . . It is a ritualized but common form of agreement between two or more people who offer this casual physical contact as an affirmation, congratulations or other type of agreement with an action, clever phrase, sports event or when admiring an attractive female or male"

Though including aggressive moves such as slaps and bumps, note that traditional dap was a complex greeting requiring time, attention and an affirmation of a relationship or understanding.

Then things began to change, most notably with the rise of the high five. Now, instead of a warm greeting requiring some lingering contact, we had instantaneous and somewhat aggressive slaps with the person being greeted. We had moved from affection to assertion.

Mind you, I write this as observation, not condemnation. I can't tell you how many babies I have attempted to teach high fives too. And to 'gimme five' well can also take a bit of doing, as Wikipedia explains:

"Several variations on the standard high five exist in order to add uniqueness to the experience and to maximize satisfaction. One such variation is the 'flipside,' also called the 'windmill;' this method begins like a regular high five, however upon meeting up top, both high-fivers continue to swing their arms downwards until they meet again in a "low five". This method is depicted in the feature film Top Gun repeatedly. . . David Putty of Seinfeld is prone to giving strangers the high five, usually as a greeting, when it is not suitable nor appropriate. If one initiates a high five by raising a hand into the air and no one consummates the celebration by slapping the raised hand, the initiator is said to be 'left hanging.' This is considered to be a somewhat embarrassing."

Which brings us to the first bump, which some think was invented by Frank Carter in the 1970s. According to another account, "Deal or No Deal host Howie Mandel reportedly adopted the gesture as a friendly way to avoid his contestants' germs." But, in any case, like the high five, the act is brief, devoid of contact and somewhat aggressive. One interpretation might be that the bumpers are gently defining each other's territory and strength. It was no accident that George Bush's first chest bump was at a military academy.

But the personal always enters the equation. Lyndon Johnson used to have a greeting in which the non-shaking hand would reach up the forearm of the greeter, applying gentle pressure, a trick that prevented the latter from squeezing LBJ's own hand too tightly, a matter of no little concern to politicians. One of my favorite hand greetings is the apocryphal one of the Maine driver passing a friend on the road, the rule being, one finger raised above the steering wheel means, "How you doin'?; two fingers: "How you and the Missus?" and three fingers, "How's the family?"

Body language expert Janine Driver reports that "My husband and I, if we're walking down the street and he's proud of me, we have our own little method. He squeezes my hand three times, which means, 'I love you,' and I squeeze his four times, saying, 'I love you, too.'"

Driver continued, "You know, the mistake that a lot of body language experts make, is they say, 'OK, arms are crossed, so it means you're bored and disinterested.' They pigeonhole one gesture into a certain meaning. . . It's unscientific. The best thing to say is, 'Obama, is there any reason why you guys did that? What did it mean?' And he'll tell you . . . "

And he did, to NBC's Brian Williams: "It captures what I love about my wife. That for all the hoopla I'm her husband and sometimes we'll do silly things."

Fair enough. Gimme five, dude. We are all children of our culture. But if someone whom others like to imitate wanted to do our land a big favor, we could also use a greeting in which our fists, hands or chests don't collide as though in conflict, and in which victory could express the joy in one's own heart rather than the vengeance achieved over others. Something between a hug and a handshake that would not be one more superfluous symbol of our isolation but a warm reminder of how much we need each other.

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PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM

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Your editor has been a musician for many decades. He started the first band his Quaker school ever had and played drums with bands up until 1980 when he switched to stride piano. He had his own band until the mid-1990s and has played with the New Sunshine Jazz Band, Hill City Jazz Band, Not So Modern Jazz Band and the Phoenix Jazz Band.

NOTES ON THE MUSIC

Here are a few tracks:

SAM SMITH'S DECOLAND BAND

'SHINE' 

JELLY ROLL

PHOENIX JAZZ BAND

APEX BLUES   Sam playing with the Phoenix Jazz Band at the Central Ohio Jazz festival in 1990. Joining the band is George James on sax. James, then 84, had been a member of the Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller orchestras and hadappeared on some 60 records. More notes on James

WISER MAN  Sam piano & vocal

OH MAMA  Sam piano & vocal