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The Handshake

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 This past weekend I attended a conference in Toronto — like most professional conferences, a plethora of introductions and networking occurs. Eating dinner in the conference hotel restaurant one evening, I sat adjacent to a table of four psychologists; three professors from the same university and one recent graduate of a clinical psychology PhD program seemingly applying for a faculty position at the university. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the 3-on-1 pseudo interview playing out next to me. To an outside observer, the recent graduate handled the situation with ease; the conversation flowed naturally as they discussed clinical experiences, research interests, and teaching philosophies. As they finished their drinks, the group stood up, shook hands, and the applicant departed. The three faculty members sat back down and reflected on the interaction:

“Well, he was a really nice kid”
“I think he would fit in well in the department.”
“Yeah, I agree…but, c’mon…his handshake was TERRIBLE”
(in unison) “Yeah it was”

My mind immediately went to the only individual I have ever known to comment on the quality of one’s handshake – Jimi. Whether it be a reintroduction to an acquaintance or first meeting a gentlemen who is courting one of his female friends, Jimi has always stressed the importance of the handshake. Now, Jimi has a laundry list of strong opinions — welfare, gun control, peanut butter & American cheese sandwiches, deep frying — perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when he initially proclaimed his stance on handshaking around when we started hanging out regularly in 2004. As a 20- year-old who had never contemplated the definition of a “good handshake,” I couldn’t help but laugh as I listened to Jimi adamantly argue his stance. Initially I approached his philosophy on handshaking as “Jimi being Jimi”; dwelling on minor details in part because of his strong opinions, but also because he knew that many of his friends were easily amused by his rants. I now realize that Jimi’s view on handshaking not only had credence (as evidence by the interaction at the hotel restaurant), but have also had an impact on my own life trajectory.

Jimi, The Huff, Ali, and AJ

Although I don’t remember my first handshake with Jimi, I certainly do remember a hundred or so that we had back in February 2007. I had recently applied to the Clinical Psychology PhD program at BU and received word that I had been offered an interview. Upon learning of the interview offer, Jimi congratulated me and immediately inquired:

(Jimi, serious) “Have you practiced your handshake yet?”
(Me, laughing) “Uh, no Jimi, I have not practiced my handshake.”
(Jimi, serious) “Let me know if you want to practice.”

I recalled the handshaking diatribes I heard from Jimi over the years and began to doubt my own neglect of handshaking — Was it really that important? Could I get rejected because of a bad handshake? Do I have anything to lose if I practice a few times? As interview day approached and my anxiety built exponentially, I decided to take Jimi up on his offer. About a week before the interview, Jimi began describing The Handshake in the living room of our Allston apartment.

(Jimi, serious) “Stand up straight, step firmly towards the other individual with your arm extended. Regardless of what is going on around you, look them in the eyes as you approach. Don’t go into the shake with a limp wrist, but don’t be so tense that you feel inanimate. Display confidence with a firm grip, avoid appearing arrogant with aggressive force. Shake firmly but not too vigorously. Briskly break from the shake while still maintaining eye contact. OK, lets try it.”

Standing 10 feet apart, the lesson began: eye contact, approach, arm extension, firm grip, shake, eye contact, release. Eye contact, approach, arm extension, firm grip, shake, eye contact, release. Again, and again, and again. We probably practiced 50 times over a 15 minute period. And again the next day, and again the day after that. And again the night before the interview. Needless to say I was prepared to give my interviewers a killer handshake. Four and a half years later, I am finally nearing completion of my PhD program. Although I can’t be positive that I was accepted because of The Handshake, I am in no position to abandon it as I currently prepare for another phase of interviews.

Jimi and I have shared a laundry list of ups and downs in our relationship; sharing Colossal Subs from 7-11 in dimly lit apartments, renting our first off-campus apartment together, Bon Jovi singalongs, shedding tears as we sent Huff to Washington D.C., a custody battle over Rocco. Of all the possible stories to share, I decided on The Handshake because I believe that it underscores aspects of Jimi’s character that have had a positive impact on my life, and likely your life as well.

Jimi’s dry, witty, sarcastic sense of humor is unmatched. Although we practiced The Handshake compulsively, our trial runs were far from perfect. Many of the practice shakes were, in fact, interrupted by me cracking a grin or giggling like a schoolboy. I couldn’t help but laugh as Jimi went through The Handshake in excruciating detail. Jimi knew that his ranting about nearly anything would make me laugh, and his fanatical approach to The Handshake was merely a subtle way of easing my anxiety about the upcoming interview. More recently, Jimi’s sense of humor has similarly allowed me to cope with news of his Pheo diagnosis with less fear. Feeling overwhelmed visiting him in the hospital for the first time, my nerves quickly subsided as Jimi greeted us by saying that he must have unknowingly purchased an “MGH oncology Groupon” based on all the attention he had been getting from his doctors. Although Jimi’s battle with Pheo has been and will continue to be difficult, I know that he will always be able to make light of the situation with humor — something that will undoubtedly make it easier for us all to cope.

Jimi is by far one of the most benevolent and respectful people I have ever known. There is no doubt in my mind that Jimi offered advice on handshaking because he is a genuine person willing to help in absolutely any way possible. It didn’t matter that he knew very little about clinical psychology or the program I had applied to; there were other ways he could be a good friend. Lessons in handshaking merely scratches the surface of Jimi being a first-responder to family, friends, and even strangers in need of any type of support. Without hesitation, he agreed to be my Best Man. He has literally lifted exhausted and collapsed Boston Marathon runners to their feet at mile 25 on Beacon Street. I’ve seen him console a complete stranger freaking out over a heart arrhythmia. Once learning I had never been to a NFL game, he immediately invited me to a Pats game upon acquiring tickets from a friend. If he sees a veteran out in public, whether it be 2pm at the grocery store or 2am at The Draft, Jimi needs to shake their hand and offer thanks for their service. He once located a hardware store in Lincoln NH in order to obtain tool to MacGyver beer from a keg with no tap for a group of friends. Regardless of how long it has been since he last spoke to someone, Jimi always makes a point to call and offer condolences during difficult times.

Jimi says that his life has been changed forever from all the support he has received over the past few months. Brother — I don’t know if you’ve realized it yet, but we’re all just trying to act like you.

– AJ


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