Gay Dad Life

Embrace Hugging

Tuesday was chili night. Although my sons hate my meat loaf and my chicken and my lasagna, they love my "Salute to Red Meat." It’s the cinnamon. We sat down to dinner at the old kitchen table, the one with the fork marks and the threadbare legs because our rescue dogs have teethed on them. We said grace (the Catholic kind, with hand-holding), and we toasted the best boys on Earth, wherever they are. As I dipped my spoon into the bowl, I said, “Mr. Luu called about ... ” My husband, Brian’s, left eyebrow arched, and so I turned to my son Aidan and asked, “How was your day?”

“Wait,” Aidan said, startled. “What does that mean?”

Zane jumped in: “What that means, Aidan, is that Papa cut Daddy off to tell him that it would be better to discuss my science-class incident after you go to bed.” At my open-mouthed gape Zane shrugged and said, “I speak gay sign language.”

Adoption’s a tricky thing. We never know whether nature or nurture is winning. Zane gets his dimples and his perfect teeth from genetics. He gets his anger issues from the circumstances of his birth. But he gets his gestures from Brian and me.

Brian has taught him the value of that arched brow as well as an occasionally rolling eye, which Brian refers to as beginner’s sarcasm. The two of them play a game called Deadpan where they see which one can stare at the other longer without cracking a smile.

But Zane gets hugging from me.

No one has ever called me a great cook (not even on chili night). No one has ever called me a great singer, but my friends say I’m the best hugger they know. I don’t know why. I try not to think about it because really, it’s an art, not a science.

Hugging is an ancient tradition. Most primates do it, although neither canines nor felines care for it much. The theory goes that hugging (and handshaking) were invented as a way of showing your enemy that you didn’t have any weapons, but the purpose is deeper. It is a communion. In fact, the American word itself is probably related to hugga, the Old Norse verb for comfort, and hegen, the German verb for cherish.

There are three kinds of huggers:


  • Bone crushers: people who make a contest out of anything.
  • Sideways huggers: people who hug only because they’re supposed to. They keep you at arm’s length, in an awkward-straight-man kind of way, occasionally adding a pat on the back, but really just anxious to get it over with. My advice to them would be just don’t hug unless you mean it.
  • Full on: the kind of people who lean in, who commit, saying, “You are a person I care for.” I call it joint meditation, a moment to contemplate the joy of knowing each other.
  • In 1965, Temple Grandin invented a hugging machine to soothe people with autism. There is evidence that acupressure and hugs reduce blood pressure and increase oxytocin levels. But know this: If Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Terminator androids ever do take over the world, they’ll discover that robots cannot hug. Deus is not ex machina.

    On Feb. 14, 2010, Jeff Ondash was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for giving out 7,777 hugs in one day. But in doing so, he missed the point. A hug is not an assembly line, but a pause in all the furor of life to treat another person as important.

    Zane still hugs me when I pick him up. Middle school is a killing field, where everyone is trying to be smooth, and no one wants to be a baby. But not Zane. He walks up, oblivious to the teenage bystanders, and gives me a big old arms-around-the-back hug. Sometimes, before you know it we get to dancing, which is, after all, a hug in motion. And he’s still the coolest boy in Denman’s eighth grade.

    Terry Asten-Bennett, who calls Brian and me her “other husbands,” also gives great hugs. She once said, “Zane looks just like you.” When I questioned that, she clarified: “I don’t mean skin color. I don’t mean bone structure. I mean that he looks. Just like you. At the world.”

    She’s right. It’s not the way the world looks in at Zane or me. It’s the way we look out, our outlook. And the way we respond. Not just in words, but gestures.

    So hug someone today. And really mean it.

    Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle

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