Column: Man hugs

Photo by russelljsmith/flickr

(Note: A copy of this column also appeared this week on – Joe)

I do man hugs. I have to. I live in Los Angeles.
Men don’t just shake hands here. That would make sense. Los Angeles is not big on sense. When any male Angeleno who lives within a 20-mile radius of the 405-10 interchange greets or says goodbye to another male he’s known for more than two weeks, we hug it out – bro-style. I have theories on why we do this.

For starters, Los Angeles is so spread out geographically that, because we are desperate for human contact in any form, we hug anyone who will touch us. We all have lifelong friends whom we hug upon greeting. These are the people who stand up at our weddings, who come to our family funerals and who know our bail bondsmen well enough to invite them to picnics. But what about new friends who expect a hug? Many of these men, I suspect, are quietly crying out, “I am lonely. Press your breast against my breast, if only for a moment, other-guy-whom-I’ve-hung-out-with-maybe-three-times.”
My second theory revolves around the fact that Los Angeles is a networking town. The more people who are on your hug list, the more powerful your image. In New York, a player shows off his status by traveling via helicopter or personal jet. In Los Angeles, a player shows off by being photographed in a lingering, uncomfortable, three-way man hug with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. This is how Edtv got made.
Finally, your average Angeleno will go to great lengths to be nice to almost anyone, even if he or she hates that person. In the part of the United States located east of Interstate 5, which is almost all of it, you probably know where you stand with a person. When you cross I-5 west, the person who is nicest to you probably hates your guts the most. This is because your average professional Angeleno is a tangled limb of compromises that is the inevitable result of the collision between wanting to succeed and wanting to be accepted by a community.

Hunter S. Thompson called the two goals exclusive. “For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled,” Thompson said, probably before blowing something up.

Now before you get all, “Boy, Joe, you sure hate man hugs, quit being such a man hug Nazi,” let me also say that man hugs can be used for good. When I see an old friend, sometimes I want to tell him that I missed him. Because I’m an American heterosexual male, I can’t actually verbalize how much I missed him without adding, “Haw-haw!” Instead I give my friend a hug – a hug that says, “I sure missed you, pal, in a completely nonsexual way.”

Man hugs also can make great art. There is only one proper way that The Shawshank Redemption – a movie that revolved around male friendship – could have ended, and that was with a man hug. Red walks up the sunny Mexican beach. His hat blows into the surf. He doesn’t look back. He’s locked in on his old friend Andy, who is sanding a boat at water’s edge. The camera pulls back as their bodies melt into a well-deserved man hug, quite possibly the greatest movie man hug of all time. Second place belongs to Ed Norton and Meatloaf’s man hug in Fight Club.
A Man Hug also can be used to end fighting, as we have learned from Entourage, which gave a grateful world the phrase, “Let’s hug it out, bitch.”

All of which brings us to – potentially – the most important man hug in history.

Back in 2004, while most Americans turned their attentions to Lance Armstrong’s sixth Tour de France victory, “Avenue Q’s” stunning upset over “Wicked” at the Tony Awards for Best Musical and Jimmy Fallon’s last appearance as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” a man hug occurred that could affect the rest of our lives.

John McCain, who had kept his distance from President Bush after Bush ended McCain’s 2000 presidential bid in the South Carolina primary, not only campaigned for the president in the summer of 2004, he also gave the president a small kiss and a big hug.

That particular man hug was important because Democrats are now using it to portray a McCain victory as a four-year extension of the Bush administration. It’s probably the most damning visual image of the 2008 presidential campaign, far worse than the footage of Obama addressing Russia’s invasion of Georgia while wearing a windbreaker.
The Bush-McCain man hug photo is damaging on many levels. It supplies visual confirmation of a fear shared by Democrats and Independents that it’s difficult to tell where Bush ends and McCain begins. And it’s not flattering. The body language is awkward, which probably is a result of the fact that both men needed the hug politically more than they wanted it personally. It also is one of the most one-sided public man hugs of all time.

Here it is again so you can follow along on the breakdown:

McCain goes all in with both arms. His left hand rests near Bush’s waist. This puts McCain in the less-dominant position. A war injury prevents McCain from raising his arms very high.

Bush does not go all in. His left arm is wrapped dominantly around McCain’s shoulder while his right arm waves – probably to McCain’s fleeting independent streak. In this photo, the president only commits half of his upper limb resources to this hug. There may have been a full hug at some point, but we don’t see it.

It looks like Bush is leaving his bro McCain hanging.

McCain, as The New York Times reported this week, hugs running mate Sarah Palin in a manner that is “businesslike” and “to the point.” That’s the strategy behind a proper man hug.

In a proper man hug, each party places one arm across the other party’s shoulder, so both men share dominance. There is at least a three-inch gap between heads. Chests bump for one second. Back slap is optional.

I know these things. I live in Los Angeles.