Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Do you remember this childhood pantomime, oddly enough sung to the tune of  There is a Tavern in the Town?

I tried, unsuccessfully, to find the origin but since it’s not the point of the post I didn’t pursue it.    I do have a hypothesis though. I think the folks that spent too much time at the Tavern in the Town came home tired and invented a game to their favorite tune to wear the wee ones out before bedtime.

Apparently there’s also a version, British ?, designed to bring civility to the rhyme with the added verse: Ankles, Elbows, Feet and Seat/It’s My Body; sung to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down. Possibly not British after all. It sounds more like something an Irishman from the Tavern would sing to spite the British…

Regardless, the key to this activity is the crucial body part never mentioned in the song, hands. The points of body recognition and coordination are demonstrated by using your hands. I’ve been looking and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of  print space devoted to hands. We’re naturally more enamored with faces and figures and even feet.

I don’t get the foot thing at all. I’ve often heard people say they have ugly feet and I agree. I’ve never seen a lovely foot. Feet are strange-looking, anatomically amazing, necessities. Feet are props. Literally. I realize I may be in the minority with this opinion. If everyone held feet in such low regard, pedicurists and toe ring makers would be out of business.

Hands, on the other hand, are telling. You can learn so much about a person from watching their hands. We work with our hands, we talk with our hands, we teach with them, touch with them. An entire language has been developed just for hands. Clearly hands tell stories you could never get from a foot.

People even take out insurance on their hands. Not J.Lo of course, but  hand models and violinist and surgeons. As for me, I have homely hands. I’ve never had a manicure, my veins protrude and my knuckles are swollen and bent with arthritis (just the regular kind, not rheumatoid). The thing is, I have exactly the hands I wished for.

I decided when I was really little that whatever I looked like when I grew up, the one thing I was definite about was that I wanted to have hands that looked just like my Mother’s. I always thought she had the most beautiful hands. Mom was actually a beautiful woman, and it might have been wiser to wish for her hair that never turned gray or her face or her figure, but I always loved her hands.

I told her that once, watching her scrub the garden dirt off her hands with Comet. She smiled at me and said, “Oh Honey, you don’t want to have ugly hands like these.” She only saw the swollen knuckles and joints, the short nails that often split, the high riding veins.

But I watched her and I watched her hands and I knew they were beautiful. They were always in motion: weeding and picking; shelling peas and snapping beans; threading needles and arranging flowers; kneading dough and rolling out noodles and pie crusts; wiping tears and clasped in prayer.

These were the hands that were never too busy to hold mine when my knees were scraped or my heart was bruised. These hands picked up book after book every nap and bedtime. They tucked me in when I was little and waved goodbye when I left for college. These were the hands I was dread to let go of the night she died, as if by holding on tight, I could make her stay with me a little longer.

My Mother’s hands were a reflection of her spirit. Working or comforting, her hands were such a medium of love and generosity. I got my wish. I have my Mom’s hands. I think it’s the only physical feature I have of hers. These are not Prell shampoo commercial hands, my Mother’s and mine. It’s a funny feeling sometimes to look at my hands and see hers. I wish I had more of her heart. Maybe someday I’ll grow into these hands of mine that look so like hers.

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” ~Carl Jung

Too Close For Comfort

After living all my life in small “vowel states”, I’ve landed in the really big consonant state of Texas. But in Texas, just like in Oregon and Iowa and Indiana, people are fragmented in all the same ways: politics, fashion, socioeconomic status, dietary habits, prejudices, religion. Sometimes we span the space; sometimes connecting is more like being in a log-rolling competition.

In order to cross those great divides, we often try to make some kind of physical connection: a smile, a reassuring pat, eye contact… Before we can connect, we have to find a personal comfort zone that includes not just inner peace but also a way to be physically at ease in our environment. Sociologists call the physical aspect social distance. Social distance is typically divided into 4 comfort zones.

When you live in an RV, the topic of emotional and physical space comes up a lot more often than fashion or socioeconomics so I thought I’d take a look at our comfort zones. I’ve being thinking about the people I know and how different we are when it comes to social distance.

The guidelines for social distance were established over 40 years ago (Hall, 1966) but are still the standard today. Although social distances are approximate and vary individually, here’s a quick recap of the 4 most commonly recognized zones (for Americans, since body language in general is very culturally specific):

1. The public zone is 12 feet or more. Here’s the thinking: when out in public, we instinctively try to keep at least 12 feet between us those we don’t know. That’s why some people go grocery shopping at midnight!
Once someone gets closer than 12 feet, we start to notice them. As the unknown person gets nearer, our minds subconsciously prepare for fight or flight. Although the need is rarely there, the body intuitively prepares to protect itself or flee.

2. The social zone is approximately 4-12 feet. Within this distance we start to feel a connection with other people. We can talk without shouting. This is an average group distance. We may be gathered in the same area but not necessarily talking directly with one another. Typical examples would be parties or social gatherings.

3. The personal zone is usually 1.5-4 feet. It’s considered normal conversational distance. This would encompass everyday, non-threatening conversations with friends, family, co-workers etc…

4. The intimate zone is 1.5 feet or closer. When a someone is within arms reach, not only can we touch them, we can also see the details of their body language and look them in they eye. Another interesting aspect is that when they’re closer, they also blot out other people so all we can see is them (and vice versa). If you really like the person, this is a great space; if not, it can feel pretty threatening.

Rules about social distance also vary with different groups of people,for example, city folks and country folks. People who live in towns spend more time close to one another and so their social distances may compact. In a large, crowded city, the social distance comfort zones are even closer.

People who normally live a long way from others will expand their social distances. the classic example is a farmer who leans over towards another person to shake hands and then back off to a safe distance.

It gets convoluted because, like much of science, the social distance theory is just that, theory, not fact. While the average intimate zone is 1.5 feet, for some it’s nearer 5.1!

Enter another person’s personal zone or intimate zone uninvited and you will likely be perceived as an emotional, if not physical, threat; activating their fight or flight response. You’re messing with their amygdalae (a pair of almond-shaped brain regions deep within each temporal lobe that control fear and the processing of emotion).

Think of the times you’ve been engaged in a really meaningful conversation. Your companion seems to be on the verge of sharing something real: hurt, guilt, failure, joy. Then you never find out because suddenly the subject is changed and the moment for revelation has passed. Many friendships stall out when one person’s personal zone is so vast that it can never be entered, keeping others forever at an emotional arm’s length.

While the average personal/conversational zone is 1.5 to 4 feet, some people break out in a sweat if you get closer than 6 feet. If you notice them leaning or stepping back, stop moving in! The same principal holds true on the emotional level.

I grew up in a physically and emotionally demonstrative family. My spatial comfort zone is pretty much up-close and personal. I can easily be a space invader. I have no problem ‘weeping with those who weep’, or even with those who don’t.

I went with a friend to the vet to offer support when she had to put her dog down. Although this was the first time I’d seen the dog, watching her hold him while he ‘went to sleep’ was something I found to be heart wrenching. I was so empathetic that I was the only one crying. The vet asked me to leave and wait at the fast food place next door.

How many times have you heard (or said) “I’m not a hugger”?
I was born a hugger. I gave happy hugs and sad hugs, empathetic hugs and ‘I’m just glad to see you’ hugs. If there was a lack of reciprocity: limp arms, or a stiffening of the body, I would hug harder, thinking this person must really be in need. It took me a long time to learn to honor other people’s boundaries.

As a gate guard, I’m paid to enforce boundaries. I don’t just keep track of strangers, I have to know the whereabouts of all of our guys all the time. The men who live here on site have about as much personal space as a they’d have in a military barracks.

Although the 2 “Company Men” have a fairly nice trailer to themselves, 9 of the guys share one 60′ trailer, 4 live in a toy-hauler, 4 live in the 14 footer, 2 live in a windowless 12 footer. Many of these guys are in their 20’s, quite a few are in their 30’s and 40’s. There are even a few old codgers like me.

I’ve made some observations as the temperature rises in southern Texas. The guys put in a lot of truck time. Initially,whenever a guy walked out and sat in his truck, I’d pick up my log and pen, ready to record his times and destination. Now I know to wait.

Some guys eat in their trucks, some make phone calls, some listen to the radio, some just sit. For the derrick-men, the roughnecks, the tool-pushers and the drillers, their trucks are the only personal space they have.

In the past, social scientists have attributed variances in comfort zones to peer reinforcement and occupation (environment) or parenting (heredity). Now we know it’s also a brain thing. According to a recent article in Time: Health and Science we can trace many of our comfort zone differences to our amygdalae.

A team of scientists from Cal Tech have been studying a 42-year-old woman (pseudonym SM) who has severe damage to her amygdalae due to a rare genetic condition.The study reports the results of experiments judging her conception of personal space.

They put SM through a series of tests in which they asked her to indicate the position at which she became uncomfortable as another woman, a researcher, approached her. SM’s preferred personal distance was 1.1 ft., about 4 times closer than the established standards.

In another trial, SM was asked to walk toward an experimenter and stop at the point at which she felt the distance was comfortable. SM walked until her nose was virtually touching the experimenter’s, all the while saying she felt perfectly at ease.

Researchers think people who suffer from extreme shyness may also have a problem in their temporal lobes. Even the tiniest lesion can affect a person’s ability to rightly read a friendly gesture or perceive a menacing one.

There’s no known way of repairing amygdalae. There isn’t a pill to increase one’s awareness of socially appropriate distance or a formula to create a state of un-shyness. But it is possible to understand that when you need to breathe, you may need to give your lobes some air. Find your comfort zone, honor your own boundaries, and consider bringing some light into the dark places by selective sharing with someone who’s truly earned your trust.

Everyone’s physical and emotional comfort radius is different. Some folks need a football field. Some would sit on your lap. For others, a Ford F250 cab is just about right.

“Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson