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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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The art of the shake
Do it like you mean it, guys
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Most men don't like to be touched. Other than a full-out roll in the sack, they usually prefer to keep all their parts private.

This leaves the lowly handshake as their last chance to press flesh in a meaningful way. Handshakes are like snowflakes, no two alike, except a handshake tells something about the person connected to the grip.

But you have to want to shake hands. Some men don't; they gape at your outstretched hand as though it's pointing a gun. I take no pity on these gentlemen. I grab these fellows' hands with an extra snap of the wrist, squeeze into their flesh and tell them with my eyes that everything's okay.

My father took handshaking very seriously. He expected me to shake hands with every adult I encountered. And not any old kind of grip either. He held Saturday morning handshaking seminars in our living room for me and my fellow 10-year-olds. He was a cross between Ann Landers and Vince Lombardi.

'Approach the person with your hand extended,' he said. 'Stick it way out in front of you like you can't wait to grab their hand.' Dad went so far as to say a man should enter the room with his hand extended, waving it about for all to know he's there to meet life head on, to grab a big-ass piece of it, to get right to the quick of things.

'Make sure you're the one doing the lifting on the shake,' he told us. 'And enjoy it. Give yourself to the person through your hand.' He'd pause and scan his students' faces. 'Now go out to the kitchen, Ricky,' he'd tell my buddy, 'and walk in here and show me how to do it.'

Up in Indiana, my grandfather was taking these things to even greater heights as he made his way into a political career, shaking one Hoosier hand at a time. He, too, lectured me on the fine art of the grip. His ivory hands were, despite his former work as a mechanic, soft as foam. He had slender, flat fingers capped with wide, oval nails like guitar picks.

When it came to his shake, Paw-Paw was a two-hander. He had a way of draping his left hand over the clasp to finish it off. Very nice.

My family's near obsession with handshakes is the reason why, to this day, I'm always very focused when I shake another man's hand. I never do it unconsciously.

This comes in handy in my professional life. I'm a broadcast journalist who, over the course of 20 years of making political talk shows, debates and other specials, has put literally thousands of people on TV. Greeting people with a handshake before they appear on camera is a sure-fire way to get a measure of their state of mind, if only for that moment.

Hold a man's hand and look into his eyes five minutes before he goes on the air in a live gubernatorial debate. I have a good record of predicting the outcome of debates by doing exactly that.

Twenty years of this practice has also provided me what you could call a bi-paw-tisan knowledge of politicians and handshakes. What have I learned? Republicans grip hands much harder than Democrats. This is a fact.

Former State Republican Party Chair Steve King was a regular political analyst for 'WeekEnd,' a show I produced for public television for a dozen years. Steve sets the bar on power and overall technique. I used to look forward to his appearances just to shake his hand.

King's grip was a whopper. Just exactly what you'd expect from an ex-FBI man. No-nonsense, clean as a pin and, when it came to the actual energy exerted on his recipient's hand, hydraulic.

Upon King's arrival, I had to use the entire length of the studio hall like a runway to build the momentum required to meet the demands of it ' like what you have to do to put your shoulder through a locked door.

Like any master, once latched, Steve brought his eyes into play. His eyes leapt out from the block of his chiseled face and seized your own in the same way his hand now controlled the lower part of your body. Brisk, staccato pumps, a good half-dozen of them, tightened his grip like a ratchet.

King's release technique, an underappreciated part of the shake (and one my father emphasized), was lightning fast. His hand came away confidently from your own, in a flash, like it never happened. Getting through the entire ordeal of King's handshake was exhilarating. Like finishing a marathon.

I'm not saying Democrats are complete failures in the handshaking department, but their shakes are, like their politics, often parsed. The act is never in the moment, as though the shake is less important than whatever might happen as soon as it's over. I'll give the Dems the shoulder slap. They're much better at that. But they should work on their handshakes.

Meanwhile, I preach the art of the shake to my sons. I admit much of this discussion is man-centric and chauvinistic. That doesn't diminish the fact that I'm thankful for the man-to-man lessons my old man and grandfather gave me in the art of the handshake. Life has a way of putting you in its grip. You may as well beat it to the punch.

And when I see my sons extend first for another man's hand, I can see the positive impression they're making ' right at that moment ' on the face of the person they're greeting. It warms me to see them reaching forward to something good, and I quietly think that, whether they know it or not, they're also reaching back to shake the outstretched hand of their great-grandfather's.

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