Monday, November 16, 2009

Don’t Touch?

Just like when I was an overly inquisitive boy, I seem to be constantly warned, “Don’t touch!”. But don’t we need touch?

Other than for medical reasons, touch is often sparingly rationed out to those of us who are getting older, or dealing with a disease like Parkinson’s. Despite the resulting sense of isolation, in effect a symbol of stigmatization like the ‘untouchable’ leper, people just seem to shy away from the taboo of touching. It seems to be relegated to the ranks of the manipulative, illicit and uncomfortable. But in the past few days I have been offered more than a few examples of how touch is legitimized and made luxurious.

It was only 7:30 in the morning but I had an hour before the flight left. All I needed was 20 minutes she said. It was one of those airport “chair” massages. You know, the kind where you sit in a kneeling position, face pressed into a cushioned donut. You remain leaning forward in a praying pose while someone kneads your stiffened muscles like my Grandma used to pummel the bread dough before she pushed it into the wood burning oven. Kim had worked a number of jobs before entering the highly personal world of massage. When I asked what caused her to choose her work, I was surprised when she off-handedly remarked, “I needed touch in my life”. Although curious, I did not pursue the topic further (I had a plane to catch), but there seemed to be a great deal more to the story. Twenty minutes was not long enough.

I don’t know about you, but the scalp massage part of a haircut is by far the most enjoyable part of what is otherwise a purely functional, bimonthly mandated activity. Angelika was responsible for the much-needed, but expensive, haircut I had while sailing out of Fort Lauderdale’s harbor into a Caribbean sunset sky. She was from South Africa. She was working in the spa aboard the Princess Emerald to see the world, as were most of the young people working the cruise ship. Strong, masterful hands with adept, outstretched fingers worked aromatic shampoo into my lathered hair. I wanted it to continue indefinitely, like a kitten with eyes half closed being stroked in front of a fire. I realized that the whole job of a beautician is touch. It was lavish, and twenty minutes was not long enough.

In the face of acceptable touching, such as greeting the family and friends we are cruising with, at a purely functional level it has become a very awkward aspect of our culture. Take the apologetic young man at Vancouver airport security who explained to me while he snapped on a clean pair of blue latex gloves that it was just procedure to “pat down” every so many passengers. I suppose that sounds, as it felt, far less invasive than “frisk”. What was I going to think, that he was doing this for some personal gratification? Not likely.

We are so often informed by words, signs or just by example that touching is bad. For instance, even though the H1N1 flu and other plagues of our disease-paranoid age are primarily airborne, we are faced with liquid hand sanitizer at every doorway, gangplank and washroom we encounter on the ship. I even noticed that some folks take a paper towel when gingerly grasping the washroom door handle as if escaping a crime scene seeking to leave no telltale fingerprints.

Touch, it seems to me, becomes more not less important as we age. And for those of us who face the sometimes self-marginalizing affects of Parkinson’s or other visibly distinctive diseases, touch brings us back from isolation and loneliness. Be it a pat on the arm or shoulder, an extra-long, firm handshake, or a warm embrace that says, “I value you”, let’s commit to keeping in touch as a part of who we are. Let’s not delegate this important sensory ability to the professionals.

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