I recall a passage from one of my college psych texts that described experiments with infant monkeys deprived of normal physical contact with other monkeys. Touch, it turns out, is a critical component of primate psychosocial development. Touch-deprived infant monkeys and humans develop behavior patterns similar to those characteristic of autism - rocking, head-banging, withdrawal.

Not just any touch will do. We can draw the distinction between positive touch, pleasurable and generally gentle, like grooming, hugging, and petting; and negative touch, such as restraint, shoving, and hitting.

Where does the "love tap" fit in? The phrase describes a light push, slap, or cuff. It's too forceful to be pleasurable; however, it's not forceful enough to cause physical pain. The love tap can be truly, if roughly, loving, as when a friend gives you a playful pulled punch on the arm. The phrase may also describe a controlled, low-force warning strike, such as a swat on the rump to get a child's attention and suggest that further misbehavior may lead to a real spanking.


Love Tap I: approximately 1972

Before I was born, there was a pottery factory across the street from my grandparents' house. It blew up, and by the time I was old enough to explore "The Woods" (maybe an acre), all that remained were a few sinkholes and lots of crumbly chunks of chalky material scattered through the "Chalk Hills" section of the overgrown lot. Although there was a playground, tennis court, and ballfield right at the end of the block, we spent more time in The Woods - the railroad tracks sat atop the perfect winter sledding hill, and in the summer, at least after the gypsy moth caterpillars had finished their nasty hatching season, the trees and high grass were a welcome alternative to the shadeless cement playground.

There were several entrances to The Woods, but the one most convenient and interesting was the driveway of the warehouse. Next door to the warehouse lived my playmate, Kevin. He claimed to be half Chinese, half Italian, and half robot, and in my worldly (and mathematical) naivete, I half believed him. He was at least a year older than me; I say "playmate" rather than "friend", because he toyed with me, without loyalty or kindness. He and my sisters once bullied me into "marrying" his little sister, whose nickname was "Pig". It had been driven into me for years that Pig was "corroded" (a neighborhood colloquy for "cooties"), to say nothing of being younger than me and a girl, and I would never had done it if I wasn't so eager to be liked.

It was one of those grimy, sweaty New Jersey days, the blacktop blistering and oozing tar like a pavement acne, when I got the first love tap I can remember. Kevin and I had "discovered" a sheet of metal, perhaps a foot and a half by three feet, probably a piece from a cabinet or desk, in the forbidden warehouse dumpster. We had each been scolded previously against the danger of throwing rocks, but with this MIGHTY METAL SHIELD, it seemed a harmless pastime for one afternoon.

My aim was miserable and my arm weak, so my self-described "fair weather friend" was in no great danger. The rocks he chose were mere pebbles, but their clang on my body shield was satisfying. Like so many of life's guilty pleasures, it just couldn't last.

Suddenly, mysteriously, my opponent turned and ran to his yard. I called after him, but mid-"Hey", a giant hand attached to a leather-tan arm grabbed one of my shoulders while the inevitable other hand clouted me firmly upside the head. Then my father's father, a grumpy and unpredictable man, grabbed my wrist and dragged me home to face my mother.

No bruise, nothing hurt but my dignity, but it made him that much more grumpy and unpredictable to me. It wasn't really a pivotal event in our relationship, but my feelings for him turned a little further from love that day.

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