George Merrill - September 2008

A Show of Hands


George Merrill

   Excepting perhaps the bleak months of January and February, weekends in St. Michaels where I live can be a zoo. I say zoo, respectfully, even affectionately now, although there had been a time when I dreaded the weekly influx of tourists.
    On one very crowded weekend, some years ago, driving through St. Michaels with my wife, Jo, people were, as usual, everywhere, like ants at a picnic. They covered the sidewalks like flowing lava, uncontrolled, spilling over into the streets, heedless of the designated crossover lanes, wandering from one side of the street to the other, grinding traffic to a halt. I immediately launched into my predictable litany of complaints, grousing about the weekly invasion of aliens from ‘out there.’ My wife, of more sanguine disposition than I, ignored my ill humor and mused casually, “It’s fun to see people holding hands.”
    I had never noticed. Indeed she was correct. The more I looked around, the more people I saw hand-in-hand. It was as though I were seeing a side of St. Michaels for the first time. With her remark, the scales had fallen from my eyes. I normally think of holding hands in public as the exclusive inclination of young lovers. Here this was clearly not the case. Couples well into their riper years, their silver-gray heads glistening in the mid-day sun, wearing shorts and tee-shirts, shopping bags in hand, walking languidly from one shop window to another, were enjoying simply being in St. Michaels – but particularly being with each other. There were younger couples as well as parents and children, couples of all descriptions, hand-in-hand.
    My wife’s casual observation that day turned me, at least with regard to tourists, into a kinder and more gentle resident. As I drive through town on weekends now I find myself actively looking for this tender expression of affection and on one occasion I even engaged in a quantitative analysis and counted no fewer than twelve couples holding hands. That count was done while I was driving, so the estimate may be conservative.
    Except for local merchants who have always seen tourists as a blessing, I had been in the habit of regarding tourists as a bane, a subspecies of the vulture; rapacious critters that descend in droves where the pickings seem promising. They crowd the landscape, forage for a day or so and then return to their nests far away, leaving behind them the effluence of their presence – Gucci water bottles, paper cups, plastic bags and newspapers floating in the wind. With tourists gone, parking spots at the Acme, recently seized by herds of SUV’s, were now freed up again, available for residents. Thanks to my wife’s comment, however, I now regard my acerbic attitude as thoroughly curmudgeonly. If a little country town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland can foster in people of all genders, ages and races the desire to be tender and to touch, I say so what if I must park a half a mile from the Acme to get milk or wait a few minutes for a family to cross the street in undesignated areas. It’s all about discovering what’s really important. And touching is important.
    In the predatory social milieu of today’s world with its many tragic abuses, the word “touching” has earned a sinister and undeserved connotation. This is unfortunate, like thinking of the word “well” as toxic because there are miscreants that have been known to poison wells. We need water to survive just as we need touching to nurture mutual affection. Monkeys know this and after a fight will often hold hands as a sign of affection and reconciliation. Children are immediately comforted by holding hands and it’s an axiom in medicine that as soon as the nurse touches her patient, the patient’s blood pressure drops and the patient feels more safe.
    In fact, the phenomenon of holding hands has seized even the scientific community’s interest. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, observes, “Based on what we’ve seen, when we get more physical intimacy, we get better relationships.” Stephanie Rosenbloom, writing for the New York Times, has investigated hand holding among college students and says: “...there seemed to be two universal truths: that hand holding is the least nauseating public display of affection and that holding hands has become more significant than other seemingly deeper expressions of love and romance.” One student allowed, “It’s a lot more intimate to hold hands nowadays than to kiss.”
    The long and short of hand holding may well be that it simply relaxes us sufficiently to promote deeper relationships while at the same time maintaining good health by aiding the work of our immune systems. They function more efficiently in the absence of stress. Both socially and physically, holding hands is a win-win, hands down.
    As in the art of love, holding hands requires developing certain skills. In the case of my wife and me it means, literally, managing the long and short of it. Jo has longer legs than I have and stands a hair taller. I have a long torso but short legs. As they hang at our sides, our hands do not meet naturally. To further complicate the matter, she prefers holding hands with her knuckles facing forward. So do I. There must be, to make the affectionate impulse to hold hands a satisfying experience, an understanding that there will be a trade off. One will lead off the gesture with his or her own preference and shortly, defer to the other’s. This is good as it keeps each of us aware of the uniqueness of the other while gently regulating the differences through conscious choices. Regulating differences is one of human-kind’s greatest challenges. In fact our survival will ultimately depend on learning how.
    In a world troubled by hatred and violence, which hungers for signs of hope, I would propose that with a show of hands, we applaud the gentility of spirit that the town of St. Michaels inspires in its visitors, and, yes, has inspired in one of its more grouchy residents.