Not Holding Hands in a Digital Revolution


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Nowadays I'm back at university in Montreal where, apparently, no one holds hands in public anymore. Over the past two years, I haven't seen one instance of it, not one. That is a high degree of conformity, of acquiscence, in the practice of an act that generally shows connection and affection; admittedly, it can have other motivations. I have seen a lot of texting on campus, hands clasped over the mesmeric screen, head bowed, thumbs fumbling and flying on the wings of text. Has our love affair with the little screen, on the little screen, replaced this simple act of affection? Has hand holding gone digital?

In truth, I'm not fond of the reductive 'public display of affection', or PDA, because of its emphasis on display, a thing done for show. If it's done in public, others will very likely watch, but that doesn't mean it's for display. Whether it's for or on display, in the end, "all behavior is communication".

Perhaps not-holding hands on campus is a by-product of academia's ethos; the body is there primarily to carry the head around to lecture halls and faculty meetings, or possibly, since universities are now so focused on corporate accreditation, hand holding is frowned upon just as it is in the corporate world - sours allegiance to the brand. Do your hands belong to you when you're on the job? Be that as it may, hand holding is clearly dèmodè in this, our digital revolution.

This ain't the sixties man...or even the seventies. Distance is normative, public displays of affection are so last generation. In fact, a PDA is just a personal digital assistant, so what's your problem?

In a digital world relationships of all kinds are birthed on the screen. Only a short time ago, the screen was exclusively a performance-watching space. Now it is much more an integral part of daily life. I wonder to what extent that history influences our avatar; the avatar as a performance piece, where the public view might include millions, not just your neighborhood. (If my avatar found out that I hold hands, that would not be good.)

As far as I can tell there are three basic types of public hand-holding with their attendant significances. At one end of the scale there is the pinky hook, very cool, non-chalant, easy to let slip; we're together, we're not, like that. At the other end of the scale, there is the fingers-interlocked hand hold. It can mean a longing for, or an expression of, a full bond with the beloved. Then there is the middle of the road, traditional, missionary hand in hand hold, appears balanced, safe and secure - make a note of whose hand is on top.

I once dated a no nonesense can-do woman named Jane, from the lush and lusty coastal islands off British Columbia. She was delightful, caring, and graciously accommodating. Isn't it strangely ironic that 'dating' is right there, in accommodating? I accommodated right back, and we were content. Eventually we parted ways after I moved to Montreal; long-distance love proved problematic - I love-hate that currently fashionable veiling word, "problematic". Hate it when someone baffle-gabs me with it, but love it when I can do the same.

The first time it happened (it being holding hands), I kept my guilt-ridden mouth shut.

It was a humid summer Sunday morning, the kind where you wake up drenched in sweat, stuck to the sheets and pillows soaked, and everything from eyebrows to assholes is drenched, and we just made love anyways.

After, Jane wanted to go for a stroll down at the lake; I wanted to go back to sleep. So off we drove down to the lake, to sleep. But first, Jane stopped at the mall for suntan lotion. I tagged along; the mall was air conditioned. As we crossed the vast lot to the mall, Jane grabbed my hand and held on. That was a first. I thought maybe the cars made her nervous. Sunday afternoon at the mall, the parking lot was a dangerous place, so holding hands was...fine.

I pulled my hand away, to open the door for her, and Jane smiles, eyelashes pointed at my throat. Once in the cool mall, Jane reasserted her grip. I looked at her; she smiled again. I looked around, worried about who saw us hand in hand. No one holds hands in public anymore, we did. I found all sorts of creative reasons for needing to use whichever hand she wanted to hold. But Jane was not to be put off. I went along uncomfortable, perplexed, accommodating.

The significance of holding hands differs according to culture. My Italian-born boyhood buddies, the Chicorelli twins, would sometimes hold my hand as we walked down the street, an Italian thing. It was a warm friendly gesture. I enjoyed the camaraderie it expressed, and it felt good. In Canada schoolboys don't hold hands in public, ever.

I recall that as a toddler I had epic power struggles with my mother about not being held by the hand when we were out. After a few blind-panic-inducing episodes of loosing me in a downtown crowd, she resorted to using a chest harness with a leash at times. Man, I hated that thing. But, in retrospect, at least I had some leeway, because mom was kind enough to use a long leash. Never mind, as a budding Houdini, I soon learned to unhook it. Holding hands can have a power aspect to it, sometimes a necessary one.

There are other more salutary experiences and associations we make with holding hands: the warmth of touching another's skin, that sweet dreamy spot at the center of the palm, the shapely and tender hand itself, the many maneuverable muscles along to the fingertips that allow so much unspoken communication, the security and strength that comes from being two (four eyes are better than two). So far so good.

Then the symbolism, the problematic part - I'm yours, and your mine. In fact, we are one. By joining limbs we signify that the relationship is its own entity, a third party if you will. A weyoume? I wasn't ready for that. Jane was, as was often the case when it came to relationship dynamics, ahead of me. I won't say miles ahead, but...yeah. I came to enjoy holding hands; it helped that Jane didn't make an issue of it. There were days though, you couldn't get me to hold hands no matter what.

Behavior has many aspects, and in an age when our bodies are under constant observation in public, and our thoughts are or can be recorded, down to the keystroke in private, a public act of affection, a PAA, is perhaps too much an expression of vulnerability.

The hook-up, the grinder, Ashley Madison, all new names and venues for an old practice, the one-night stand. The illusion of privacy and the ease of use that digital communication engenders has caused this shadowed practice to explode in numbers. And as diversity follows creativity, the latest is, "the lounger", a micro-stand, once known adolescently as the wham bam thank you mam, except this one's on wings. Yup, you guessed it, there's an app for that. It's for people who want to hook up in an airport lounge while their flight is pending. Don't worry there are shower areas in the back. The lounger, summons shades of the two-backed lounge lizard, of the genus horny.

Does how we form relationship in a digital world have an influence on how we are in public space in general? What do you think, is zero hand holding on campus just the inevitable change that accompanies the swing of the social pendulum, or is the lack of hand holding a symptom of our mesmeric relationship to the small screen, or could answers lie elsewhere? We may or may not come up with satisfying answers, but with your help we'll try, in this, our digital revolution.

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