The Politics of Touching

Joe Biden has been going through a lot of scrutiny lately over his touching of strangers.  It’s the beginning of a campaign, and that is the natural time for such issues to come up.  Some people are quite insistent that Biden has been inappropriate, while others are defending him.

As a teenager, I never hugged people in greeting. I felt that I had a wall around me.  I was lonely and awkward socially.  I didn’t know any way out of this conundrum, because my upbringing hadn’t given me any.

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Then in college, I met people who hugged. When they saw you, they hugged you. When they said goodbye, they hugged you. It was how things were done in their world. Or maybe it was a moment in history when that changed, the 1970s, when men started wearing colors and gays started coming out of the closet.  Or maybe it was the circles that I suddenly entered, the big city that I had moved to, the sophisticated people, the bohemians and artists, I don’t know. At any rate, I started being more touchy.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979

I have never been as touchy as Joe Biden. I have admired how loving he is, how confident, how giving, but I have never been able to pull it off.  It’s a cultural thing, too, like Latin cultures that are more touchy (Italy, Spain, Greece), and look down on Anglo cultures that aren’t as touchy. There is a tradition that glorifies that kind of touching.

In fact, my mother tells me a story about that.  She comes from Mexican culture and my father comes from a German/English tradition–i.e., a white guy married a Mexican girl.  And when I was born, my mother hugged and held me all the time.  My father objected.

“You’re going to smother him,” he said.  “Why are you touching him all the time?”

“Because I love him.”

It was a point of conflict with him, and they never resolved it.  Twenty years later, when I was in college, I came back from school being more touchy, and started hugging him hello and goodbye.  My father was shocked, although he never said anything to me about it.  But in private, my mother tells us, he did talk about it.

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My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

“When he hugs me,” my father asked my mother, “what am I supposed to do?”

“Hug him back!” my mother said.

There are subcultures that grow out of trauma, such as molestation victims, who freak out when you hug them. And then there are people who seem physiologically averse to touching for whatever brain-chemistry reason. And there are religious subcultures who avoid touching because it might be sexual (cf. Mike Pence, who doesn’t even like to be alone with any woman not his wife, or Muslim subcultures).

I am more aware of personal boundaries than most, probably because my parents taught me to be aware of that. When I was dating, I had problems with the moment when you kiss someone for the first time, for example, because it was an uninvited moment. You had to read the other person, and you could always read wrong.

What I’m saying is that this is not simple.  And before you condemn Joe Biden, ask yourself where you think it comes from: a good place, or a bad place.  That’s the key.

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A Vulture Circling for Meaning

In our first morning in Dublin, I was looking for an authentically Gaelic experience, something filled with mystery, ambiguity, and the type of contradictions that implode upon contact. I was envisioning the inner meaning of the Celtic cross or a Luke Kelly song belted out with elan from the lungs of an overearnest busker on O’Connell Street.

The previous evening, upon arriving at the flat, I had been looking out at the Irish Sea from our balcony in Blackrock. That was a mysterious moment. The mystery was how it was possible to make such a knockout sky.

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The next morning in the flat, while researching Dublin churches on the Internet, my mouth was filled with the bitter aftertaste of the Guinness I had drunken the night before. That Guinness had been a communion of sorts. So was the view of the Irish Sea. Church, the Catholic sort with statues, golden icons, and stained glass, would be my third.

It wasn’t just mystery, but history, as well, that I yearned for.

History as in the Viking ships that had begun arriving by 795 AD to plunder the rich monasteries and Gaelic races who lived here, pale-faced men who wore long beards and animal skins. At one point, 65 Viking ships sailed up the River Liffey, which today forms Dublin’s spine. It must have been a stunning sight.

History as in the Maretimo Mansion that was owned by the wealthy wool merchant Valentine Lawless, Second Baron Cloncury. My mother, my girlfriend, and I were staying on those very grounds. In 1798, Lawless participated in the 1798 Irish rebellion, which sought freedom from the English crown, but resulted in many Irish deaths. Still, it forced the Brits’ hand, and in 1800, Ireland was turned from merely a possession to an actual part of Great Britain, with at least token representation in Parliament.

Baron Cloncury’s Maretimo House sat on Blackrock Beach and had a fabulous view. By 1970, however, it had fallen into disrepair and was torn down and rebuilt as the Maretimo House flats, which I was currently occupying.

But today, my pursuit of the mysterious was focused on Guardian Angels Catholic Church, which started at 9 am with Gaelic services, and then at “half ten,” as the Irish lad on the street phrased 10:30 in his charming lilt, we walked down the street and entered the centuries-old sanctuary. There was iconography on the walls and the priest was telling an edifying story.

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“I was helping out at a rural church,” he said, “and I overheard a congregant confess doubts about his relationship with the true Christ because he had never had any feeling of closeness with Christ or God or anybody.”

My mouth was still filled with the Guinness aftertaste, and I strained to listen through the priest’s thick Irish brogue echoing in the high-ceilinged church.

“…And later,” he continued, “I gave communion, and as I came to the doubting man, a kind of Thomas, really, he had his arms crossed in front of his chest, which in Britain means that the man would like a prayer said for him. And so I raised my hand and said, ‘Lord God almighty, I pray that you might show this man the true width and depth and breadth of God’s Face, and that he might know all of what it is to know You, my Lord.’

“A day later, as I was walking about the town, I saw that selfsame man walking down the street, and he was crying as he was walking. And it made me sad because of the depth of his despair. But the man with whom I was walking said, ‘No, father, he isn’t crying from despair, he’s crying because he has suddenly felt close to God.’

“And so I found the man, and sure enough, he told me, ‘I’ve been crying on and off over these past 24 hours, because for the past 40 years, I’ve never felt close to God, but suddenly, after confessing my despair, I’ve been crying from joy because I suddenly feel him in my heart after all these years.”

I’m not religious, but as I sat there in my pew in the back of the church, what came to me were impressions, feelings, and thoughts, nothing so neatly pieced together into neat story form like the pastor’s tale. In the pews at the left, a 3-year-old child was yelling intermittently, the echo going up to the spired ceiling. Nearer, I saw a 4-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mother, several rows of electric candles in front of her.

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To our left, I spied a wooden sculpture named “The First Fall,” a carving of a Roman soldier flogging Christ as he carried the Cross towards Gethsemane, and I thought, I’ve felt that whip. In front of me were the backs of congregants, many of them silver-haired, many wearing casual thick cloth coats with hoods, and it was a reminder that in Ireland, bad weather is always expected. In my mouth, the Guinness was still lingering unpleasantly.

I suppose I was looking for a narrative. I was a vulture circling for a story, watching a priest who was also circling, but he, for souls.

At the end of the service, everyone stood up and filed out the huge front doors. I left the church somewhat disappointed, I must admit, because I had had a magical experience that was not a real magical experience. It was like a man watching a television show of his own life as it was happening, all self-consciousness. Outside, we were greeted by some rare Dublin sun. The congregants were milling around, chatting.

And that’s when I saw the three young boys dressed in rugby clothes, aged 5, 6, and 7. I immediately brightened. I approached them and talked about the big game of the night before, in which Leinster, the Dublin team, had triumphed over Glasgow to claim the Celtic League trophy.

“Are you rugby fans?” I asked.

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“Sure we are,” he said. “Their uncle plays for the Manchester team,” he said.

I looked at the children with fondness.

“Would the children like to see a magic trick?” I said instinctively, because it’s always my first play.

“Yes, of course,” he said.

And so I pulled a coin out of a child’s ear. And then I pulled one out of each of the others’ ears, too. And then I performed a sophisticated routine that even decked the father. But I didn’t want to push it too far, because magic and religion are an uneasy mix, so I pulled myself away and we began walking home past 16th-century walls and hoodlum graffiti. And as we did, I mused that I had, after all, had my magical experience. It was the children’s smiles as they watched the magic. There’s nothing more magical than a child’s smile. And when I think back on that moment, I don’t remember the bitter taste in my mouth or the cynicism in my heart. That moment is pure, clear, and holy.

A Liar and a Thief

Last month, I went out to perform magic on the street.  Between shows, I noticed a guy standing on a crate about 30 feet to my right.

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“We’re having a trivia contest here and we’re giving away cash!” he said.  “Free cash if you can answer these trivia questions.”

That’s the kind of pitch that will gather you a crowd.  People lingered, wondering what the catch was, and then he would launch into the questions in a loud bark.

“What is money made out of?”

“Paper!” somebody would yell out.

“No!” he would answer.

“Plastic!” another person would yell out.

“No!”

“Fibers!”

“No!”

Audience members would fumble their way through all the possible responses, and then, after a couple minutes, somebody would yell out, “Cotton!”

And the guy would smile and hand out a $5 bill.  That attracted even more people.  The guy was giving out money! 

“What color is the sky?” the guy continued.

“Blue!” somebody would yell out.

“No!”

“White!”

“No!”

“Black!”

“No!”

After a few minutes, somebody would yell, “Clear!”

And the guy would give out another $5 bill.  The guy was giving out money!

After a few questions, the crowd had grown quite large.  At that point, the guy would change his tactics a bit.  He would address someone in the audience directly.

“Sir, are you a good person?”

“Yes.”

“If you can prove to me that you’re a good person, then I’ll give you a $20 bill.  Stand on that crate opposite me and answer my questions.  If you’re proven to not be a good person, I’ll still give you $5.  Is that fair?”

“Okay.”

And then the spectator would step onto the crate.

“Okay, first question: Have you ever told a lie in your entire life?”

There would usually be a pause, and then the spectator would answer, “Yes.”

“Okay, second question: Have you ever stolen anything in your entire life?”

“There would be another pause, and then the spectator would answer, “Yes.”

“Okay, so you’re a liar, right?  And you’re a thief, right?  Do you feel that you deserve this $20 bill?”

“Yes.”

“But you’ve already confessed that you’re a liar and a thief.”

That’s when the guy would launch into his sales pitch, which turned out to be pure evangelism.

“But even though you’re not a good person,” the guy would continue, “Jesus was sent down from heaven to take away your sin….”

It was vicious.  First, he lured spectators with the promise of cash prizes.  Then he asked a representative spectator some personal questions.  Then he would twist their answers to imply that the spectator was an awful person.  (After all, just because somebody has lied a few times in his life doesn’t make him “a liar,” and the same applies to the thief appellation.)  Then he would sell his gospel as if he were selling soap–spiritual soap.

Sometimes, he would point to his golden retriever, which was a darling dog that lingered behind him.

“Isn’t he lovely?  Doesn’t he look happy?  He is, in fact.  Unfortunately, we brought him to the vet a few weeks ago, and it turns out he has a terminal illness.  Vet said he has only six months to live.  So he’s walking around happy as can be, but unfortunately, a death sentence is just around the corner for him.  And so it is with all of you.  You may be walking around happy as can be, but a death sentence is just around the corner for you.  Will you be ready?  Have you asked Jesus into your life?”

I was performing out there for a couple of hours, and the longer I listened to the pitch, the more it depressed me.  In fact, I became quite depressed, which certainly isn’t my way.  Each time he told the dog story, he would pronounce a different death sentence on the dog: sometimes it was six months, sometimes two months, sometimes nine months.

So, Mr. Soap Salesman, why do you think you deserve my trust when you’re a liar?

After listening to him for a couple hours, I cut short my magic performances.  I couldn’t take listening to his spiel any longer.  And on the drive home, I felt the weight of humanity weighing on me, disgusted at the lies and truth twisting that people would engage in just to prove that they were right and everyone else was wrong.  The only way I could dig myself out of the funk was to think of something lovely.

When I get home, I thought, I can put Lulu on my chest and pet her face.

And when I got home, there her furry white face was gazing at me behind the glass balcony door, gazing longingly in at me, hoping that I would bring her in and put her on my chest and pet her face.  And that’s just what I did.  It wasn’t a reasoned philological argument.  It wasn’t a spiritual accusation.  It wasn’t intellectual at all.  It was just petting Lulu’s face, which is one of the most wondrous things in the world.

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