I am not a hugger.
When someone I don’t know (and occasionally, even, a close family member) approaches me with outstretched arms, I tend to assume they want to choke me. I’m not even much good for a hearty handshake, but I suffer through it out of politeness.
It’s not you; it’s me.
So, it’s probably no surprise that I was a bit trepidatious heading over to Austin ad agency GSD&M (think Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce without the booze and sexism) to chat with chairman Roy Spence, author of a new book, “The 10 Essential Hugs of Life.”
Can you blame me? Not only is Spence a world-class hugger, but look at the number in that title — 10!
And, as if enumerating those opportunities to embrace wasn’t enough, he’s even classified the types of clutches: mind hugs, heart hugs, touch hugs, bear hugs. I began to sweat, which I imagined would make any embrace less pleasant. To which of these would I be subjected?
Turns out I needn’t have worried. Perhaps sensing my agitation, the author (he’s written a number of books, including the beautiful “The Amazing Faith of Texas: Common Ground on Higher Ground”) greeted me with a subdued but friendly handshake and a pat on the shoulder.
At 65, Spence is ridiculously energetic, his mouth just barely struggling to keep up with the wheels I sensed spinning to a blur behind his silver hair, infectious smile, booming laugh (he’s not a large man — where does that gigantic sound come from?) and inviting Austin drawl.
“If anybody’s qualified to write about hugs,” I thought, “this is the guy.”
Spence was inspired to write the book four years ago. On a business trip with colleagues in Germany, Spence was exhausted after finding himself unable to doze on the flight. Still, he forced himself to stay up until 7 p.m., hoping for a good night’s sleep before the next morning’s important meetings.
Lying in bed alone and far from home, he began to shake. He had immersed himself in work and family in the four weeks since his father’s death. Outside, the skies opened up and it began to pour. “I was a sixty-year-old kid with no parents. I am all alone,” he writes in the book. “I had never needed a hug more in my life.”
The author describes how he began to feel a deep embrace in his heart that he was certain was a hug from his mom and dad. He basked in the warm, soothing feeling then awoke, filled with energy. Thinking he’d slept all night, he was surprised to find out he’d been out only for an hour.
Spence stayed up the rest of the night, first creating the title for the book and contemplating its contents then, going on 40 nearly sleepless hours, writing the chapter titles.
“I wrote the book for it to be both physical hugging and kind of symbolic, metaphysical hugging,” Spence says. “The purpose of ‘The 10 Essential Hugs of Life’ is to use the hidden power of hugs to lift people up, including yourself.”
Jared Dunten, a paralyzed Austin artist and writer who paints with his mouth, provided illustrations for the book.
The tome’s topic comes naturally to Spence, who grew up hugging in small town Brownwood. His father, “Big R,” never met a stranger, Spence writes in the book’s introduction:
“Big R was a straight-up, six-foot-five, strikingly handsome man. But when he met somebody on the street, he would bend right over and hug them. He hugged them all: men, women, children. And they would hug him right back, especially the women, and especially the older ones.
“By the time I was old enough to walk, I was old enough to hug. And hug I did.”
Spence chronicles various life lessons he received from his dad but most cherishes the idea that, as a man, it’s cool to hug everyone: family, friends, business partners and employers; CEOs, presidents, football players and four-star generals.
“I even tried to hug the Queen of England once in the Texas Governor’s Mansion when Ann Richards was governor,” he writes. “That did not go well.”
Richards embodied the spirit of the “mind hug,” a mental embrace Spence finds useful for getting over disappointment or betrayal.
“Ann would come up to me on the track — the big, silver hair,” he recalls, laughing. “I’d be going counter-clockwise and she’d be going clockwise and she’d come up to me and grab me and hug me and kiss me on the cheek and say, ‘Precious, get over it and get on with it.’
“The mind hug is basically the idea to remember when you and that friend (who hurt or betrayed you) had the best day, before all this stuff. You can mind hug ’em and say ‘We had one of the best days of my life, but it’s over and I’m letting go,’ ” he explains.
Spence describes the “heart hug” as a mental moment of gratitude. “Every day I take 60 seconds and I heart hug someone.”
Most recently it was his grandfather, a Brownwood lawyer who loved to garden. He always named day lilies after his kids and his grandkids, a tradition Spence continues.
“The other day I just grabbed hold of him and said ‘Granddaddy, thank you so much for teaching me to name the lilies and for always telling me that mine was the prettiest.’ ”
The recollection causes Spence to choke up and fall silent for a moment.
“It really is that moment of gratitude that we sometimes don’t want to deal with because sometimes it’s painful. But it’s not if you remember what that person gave you,” he says.
The “touch hug” can be physical or just a sincere, verbal expression of gratitude, and Spence insists that we all need it. He flies a lot, for example, and notes that TSA agents are required to look you in the eye when they hand back your boarding passes and identification.
“Every time they do, I look at them and say, ‘I want to thank you so much for what you do. I really appreciate it.’ Fifty percent of them say, ‘Thank you. Nobody’s ever said that to me.’ That’s just a little hug,” he explains. He does the same thing when approaching receptionists at Fortune 500 companies.
“They stop me when I am walking out of the office and say, ‘You don’t know how much I needed that today.’ He quotes Scottish theologian John Watson: “Be kind to everybody you meet, because everybody’s fighting some kind of battle.”
The last type of hug was Big R’s favorite — the “bear hug.” Spence writes that it is “the mother of all hugs.
“It bundles all of the hugs, Heart, Mind and Touch, along with love, into a healing wonder moment. It can be as gentle as your baby’s first tiny hand-hold or the fierce hug of long-lost brothers or sisters. The Bear Hug does not depend on physical strength, but rather genuine and authentic strength of the love that comes through in that hug.”
I wasn’t quite ready to bear hug Spence as we concluded our interview. But, to my surprise, we did engage in a warm, brief embrace before I left, and it made me feel really good.
Maybe there’s something to this hugging stuff after all.
“The 10 Essential Hugs of Life”
$18.95; Greenleaf Book Group Press
Spence will discuss and sign copies of the book beginning at 7 p.m. Nov. 19 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar, Austin. Information: 512-472-5050.