Flashback: Free Hugs

(Another rerun from my younger days. This was originally posted on April 13th, 2007. Was I ever that young?)


Hugging: one of life’s greatest joys. For months, I have talked about having shirts made that say I NEED A HUG in huge block letters across the front. I’d need several, in a variety of colors— I need a hug more often than not. If I had five such shirts, I could get through Finals Week without sobbing hysterically. Maybe. Maaaaybe.

The Free Hugs Campaign warmed the cold, rusted-out junker that is my heart.

Your assignment is as follows:

1. Visit The Free Hugs Campaign and watch the video

2. Write back and admit that you, too, want to marry Juan Mann immediately. You’ll have to fight me for him, of course, but we all know I’m flabby and gutless; you’ll win

(2011 Update: If you need more information before you propose, check out The Illustrated Guide to Free Hugs, read the oprah.com blurb, or consider another side of his story)


To round out this essay, I will now describe the Best Hug of My Life:

In January of 2001, I found myself at a YMCA youth conference in Kentucky. I didn’t know a soul, I felt hollow and lonely; “Aardvark” had dumped me the week before, and I was a wreck— not a flesh wound, not a fender-bender, but a Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I wanted to curl up and die (as did everyone who dealt with me, no doubt), but instead I had to force a smile, make friends, and hug a lot of strangers.

“What?!” you cry, “Hug strangers?!”

Yep. There was a big emphasis on hugging at the conference; we were periodically assigned to turn and hug someone, friend or nay.

Most of you know that I’m shy. Those of you who knew me at 15 realize that I’d rather have been murdered than face a stranger.

And so, when the first Call to Hug was issued, I tried not to make eye contact with anyone. I stared first at the floor, then the ceiling, then the floor again, wishing I’d never been born.

But wait! As I attempted to study the ceiling, someone tall managed to catch my eye; his name tag said Michael Stevens. He had brownish hair and wore a soft, fleecy jacket . He raised his eyebrows questioningly and opened his arms to me.

I hesitated, then fell into that soft, fleecy embrace, not realizing that it would be the best hug of my entire life.

Now, I’ve had a couple o’ dozen people tell me what good hugs I give, but I can’t compete with this Michael Stevens character. As I stood wrapped in his long, long arms, he gently rocked me. He held me like I was the woman of his dreams, a gift from God, the lover he’d been missing for 27 years while he was trapped in a POW camp. Anyone who saw us would think he’d just found Cinderella.

Even in my hopeless, brokenhearted emo state, I was impressed.

Naturally, I made a point of writing him a note about his fantastic hugging abilities, ensuring many more hugs. There are times when manipulation is justified, and winning the world’s best hugs calls for desperate measures.

If I saw him again, I would not recognize him. Not that I need to see him; he was just a nice boy who happened to have an extraordinary touch, and found me at exactly the right time. I stand all amazed.


Remember, that was in 2001: In late 2006, I mentioned him to my mother in a casual conversation. I said, “I don’t remember if I ever told you about Michael Stevens—”

“Mmmm!” she interrupted, “The one who gave wonderful hugs!”

His legend lives on.


In honor of Mr. Juan “Free Hugs” Mann and Michael Stevens, get away from your computer and go hug someone you love. Or like. Or be bold and find a stranger! Then come right back here and tell us about a memorable hug from your personal history. Please?


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  1. Wow, that video made me tear up and I can’t quite seem to stop. Maybe I need a hug today, too…


  2. StoutPint says:

    I was hugged at random by a little girl at Wal-Mart while looking at bodywash.
    She liked my pretty red hair. I told her I liked her red hair too.
    Her mother told “Not all redheads are family.” In a flat voice. I suspect I was not her first random-hug rodeo. “I know, ” the little one replied, “we’re cooler!”

    My day.
    It was made.


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