Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Hey! Not So Hard!"

On a small number of occasions, I have enjoyed the thrilling opportunity of meeting professional athletes. No really big names, but still – athletes. Big, burly guys, with enormous hands that were in perfect proportion with the rest of them. I was in awe of these magnificent, physical specimens.

My most lasting impression about meeting to these ball-playing behemoths was their handshakes. They were always gentle. I’m talking, “Are you kidding me?” gentle. Virtually Oscar Wilde-like in their gentleness, unless Mr. Wilde happened to be overcompensating that day.

“The only thing worse than a weak handshake is a strong handshake”

Wilde might have aphorized, in one of his less witty moments.

Since it happened on every occasion I can remember, it occurred to me that these super-strong athletes knew the score in the handshaking department, and they deliberately pulled back on the pressure. Why bother showing off? These people had nothing to prove.

“You think I’m not powerful? I just ‘chest-bumped’ a guy in the end zone, and fractured four of his ribs.”

The “careful” handshakes I continually received made me imagine that, sometime early in their careers, along with lectures on avoiding drugs, managing your money, and steering clear of floozies who may pretend to love you but are really in it for all they can get, athletes were also required to submit to rigorous instruction in the area of “Shaking Hands With Ordinary People.”

This training would involve drilling the athletes on the appropriate amount of “squeezing pressure”, covering a whole range of “meeting the public” situations – “Shaking Hands With Children”, “Greeting The Elderly”, “Remember, She’s A Woman”, and “Go Easy, He’s From France.”

Of course, there could be occasions, like when greeting a fellow athlete, or a guy who could have been an athlete but their parents made them go to law school instead, where it would be permissible to drop your guard and “Let ‘er rip!” – an unspoken nod to the “Brotherhood of the Strong.”

Under normal circumstances, however, if my experience is any guide and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be, athletes, working from the premise, “Better Safe Than Sorry (and Sued)”, anchor themselves on the “gentle” side of the dial, and you’re shaking hands with a five-fingered fish.

There’s a verbal equivalent to the athlete’s “handshake” problem, a condition labeled – I believe by parents who don’t care for it one bit – the “Smart Mouth Syndrome.” The “Smart Mouth Syndrome” generally involves a sudden and inappropriate lashing out, the assault invariably dripping with sarcasm, or, as Monty Python might call it, its “weasly coosin”, irony.

People designated “Smart Mouths” – and we know who we are – need to constantly monitor themselves against devastating, angry tongued outbursts. Otherwise, somebody may end up in the therapist’s office. Possibly, for decades.

And now comes the confession.

I know it was a traumatic situation, but I’m not interested in excuses.

At my mother’s funeral, I am introduced to the rabbi who will conduct the upcoming memorial service. It’s the first time I’m meeting him. I learn later – though an educated guess would not have been far from the mark – that the man orchestrating my mother’s final sendoff is twenty-seven years old.

The fog of grief obscures the memory of how we were introduced. I do, however, affronted by his incongruous youthfulness, remember looking the rabbi straight in the eye and saying,

“First day?”

The circumstances notwithstanding, my behavior had been hurtful and disrespectful.

I had shaken the neophyte rabbi’s hand

Way too hard.


YEKIMI said...

Hmmmm....could it be that the athletes shake your hand so tenderly because they take one look at you and think you're so frail that a firm handshake might kill you?

Anonymous said...

Hopefully even 27 year old rabbis understand that humor is a grief coping necessity. Our family has been just as good at finding the funny when struck with tragedy. There are too many stories from our bouts with just this kind of outburst when my sister, who was 24 at the time died of cancer. We just didn't know how to do without it. And you write about it so well that you just made me laugh and cry at the same time.