Thursday, November 23, 2006

"Smile"

Some years back, I had a conversation with an ex-girlfriend that has always stuck with me. For one reason, because the relationship with that particular girlfriend was far and away the most traumatizing I’ve ever had (and not just in bad ways...though mostly in bad ways) and I still have issues with regard to recovering from the time we were together and the time of the split. And for another reason, which was that the conversation – well, it wasn’t so much a conversation as it was some commentary she was giving me – stung pretty good at the time. And still stings a little. Much like the relationship itself. (Some scientists and other intellectuals of note have theorized that the relationship/demise in question may in fact be at the root of my relationship problems ever since, though this has not been independently confirmed.)

I think she had good intentions with her comments. She claimed to. They were supposed to have functioned along the lines of “constructive criticism.” The interesting thing about what she said – and this probably contributes to why I remember it so vividly – is that it was equal parts constructive and destructive. Again…much like the relationship. There was and is definitely a message worth conveying on her part and worth revisiting from time to time on my part. It’s a very valid, honest and helpful message. The only bad thing about it is that it can’t be communicated or received without acknowledging the unpleasant part of it.

Well, that’s not necessarily true. I think she could have gotten her point across without including the more negative parts of it, especially given her awareness of how physical appearance has always been the origin of my self-esteem issues. There have been times when I’ve remembered what she said and thought to myself that I would not have said it at all, had I been in her shoes. But I can appreciate wanting to get the more uplifting side of the comments across because, like I said, they were ultimately valid, honest and helpful. Her motives, though, could be questioned. Both of us had a desire to make each other more like ourselves. It was a very intense relationship in that it was usually either very joyous and promising or very dark and upsetting; there were few moments that fell in between the two extremes. Anyway, in the end, I suppose she accomplished the mission of her conversation with me in a way that was consistent with her attitude and feelings toward me in general – she stroked with one hand while slapping with the other.

(Some additional parenthetic information that’s too detailed and long for parenthesis...

(Apparently, during one drunken phone argument with her, I told her she was pretentious to the point where she reminded me of the Diane Chambers character from “Cheers.” I was shocked to hear that I’d said this the next day [I was
terrible back in my drinking days about not being able to remember things I’d said the previous night], though also very amused because I’d been secretly wanting to say that for as long as I’d known her. Actually, I despised her from the moment we met at work* because she was so flirtatious, pretentious and obviously insincere...three qualities I absolutely hate in people. But once our conversations progressed and it started to appear that she had some romantic interest in me, I sold myself out for the opportunity to be with her. It had been years since I’d even been on a date and had no life of my own during that period, so I was desperate for the attention/affection. But my instincts about her were correct, as my instincts usually – and weirdly – are about people. I have an odd gift in that regard and it serves me well, I think. But I digress.

(Anyway, her response to me, which I also didn’t remember, was that I too was like a character from “Cheers” to her. I was expecting her to say Sam Mallone because I, uh...let’s just say there’s a lot of primping going on when I’m getting ready to go out and leave it at that. [However, in my defense, I will say that I am one of the least metrosexual and lowest maintenance people I’ve ever known, otherwise. It’s true, I swear. But I’m getting off-topic again.] Anyway, I was mentally prepared to go off on her when she said I was the Sam Mallone character, but she didn’t. Instead, she said I was the Carla Tortelli. Which was appalling on first reaction but then became completely hilarious. Because it was so dead on. I’m obviously a pretty dark, sarcastic person. Not mean-spirited, but I could easily be so back in the days when I was a drunk. And back then that’s what I was. So it fit. But that gives you an idea of the kind of fundamental conflict in personality she and I had. As much as we could bring out the best in one another, our natural tendencies were to annoy the fuck out of each other. Somewhere between Yin and Yang and the snake consuming itself.

(*We met because we worked for the same company and got to know each other via email. She worked for our Austin showroom while I worked – and still do – for the corporate offices in Dallas. The fact that we “met” this way is significant in that when I am sitting in front of a computer or on the other end of a phone, I am not terribly shy and can communicate pretty decently. Whereas I tend to be the opposite when meeting new people in person. In fact, we declared our “interest” in one another sight-unseen during our second phone conversation, a
seven-hour talk; the first conversation the previous night lasted almost six hours. That was how strong our verbal/mental connection was and, all negative issues aside, there obviously had to be something there for us to have developed such an emotional intensity. Very weird, in hindsight. But thank god for the internet...otherwise, I’d never get laid. Anyway, I mention this because both of us knew full well that, had we met first in person, neither of us would have had any interest in the other and we would have never hooked up. So while I can thank god for the internet at the moment, I also retroactively curse it for fostering the kind of environment that encouraged that relationship to ever get off the ground.)

Okay, back to the point, which was the conversation I’m supposed to be sharing. (You can see now why she might have been attracted to some far away, semi-pretentious windbag like myself, yes? Oh, I’ve also been told I have a “sexy” phone voice. I just think I sound gay, but whatever. I’m sure that helped.) She and I had just returned from what was pretty much a hellish week together in Colorado. We had driven back to Dallas and gotten in the previous night after midnight. She stayed in town because of a work-related meeting the day after our trip. This was the first time she had visited the corporate offices in an official capacity, and nobody at the company (for the most part) knew we were together. Now, since I work for the corporate offices, I deal with folks at the various stores. So I talk to all of them and know them all, but none of them know each other. That was the case then and it’s still pretty true now. Anyway, she got to her hotel room to discover she had a roommate…her counterpart from one of our western locations, who also happened to be someone with whom I spoke frequently, although on a purely professional basis. (And who also, as it turns out, was every bit the pretentious snot my girlfriend was, albeit kind of a dumb one. But my point is I’d had many phone/email dealings with this other chick as well.)

The day passes...I do my usual job, they have their meeting. If I recall correctly, I ran into the girlfriend’s temporary roommate in the morning because she came to look for me to introduce herself. I don’t remember thinking much about the encounter at the time, except my observations that she looked exactly as I imagined her looking (snooty designer type), only a little more...I don’t know, stripper-y or something. Whatever. No big whup.

The day ends...I don’t even remember how or where the girlfriend and I met up, but I know we went and had dinner at a restaurant in Oak Lawn. Eating and conversation ensued. We get back to my place and I guess hung out for a bit before she had to drive back down to Austin that night.

So we’re standing out by her truck and talking about what she thought of everybody, her roommate, things I had told her about her roommate in advance, etc. Somehow, we got on the subject of what the roommate thought about meeting me (and probably vice versa). At which point, the girlfriend says the following...

“(The roommate) said she was really surprised because you weren’t as good looking as she thought you would be.” I remember it feeling like the verbal equivalent to a knee in the crotch. She continued, “Yeah, she thought that as smart and confident as you come across on the phone and in emails, and with the sexy voice that you have, that you’d be really hot. She said she was really surprised at how not attractive you were.”

How does one respond to a comment like that, just out of curiosity? I’m assuming I just stood there and stammered while trying to apply mental pressure to the puncture wound she just put in my gut.

Eventually, she finished telling me how the discussion played out...

“Was he smiling when you met him?”

“I don’t think so.”

“That’s too bad. Danny’s very handsome when he smiles.”

She always used the word “handsome” in an almost Victorian way when describing attractive men and I couldn’t stand it. It sounded like she was trying to be older or more sophisticated than she really was. Pretentious. Diane Chambers. I still hate that word.

Anyway, she tells me that she’s sharing this story with me as a form of constructive criticism...that other people, not just her, saw someone who looked a bit dour and unpleasant upon first glance. But that when I smiled, it changed my whole appearance to the point where I was suddenly…very handsome, I guess.

I’m like most people, I think, in that every once in a while I’ll catch a glimpse of myself and think, “Eh...could be worse.” And then on other days, go, “Oh, good god...” And my face is just my face, you know? I wake up with it every day, I see it all the time...it is what it is. I don’t really know if it’s good or bad.

Logically, the thrust of her message is correct, of course. We humans adapted our smiles over millions of years because it serves us well in our various endeavors. And we’ve conditioned ourselves to see other people as being more approachable, less threatening, more attractive...handsome, you might even say…when they are smiling. I’m no different. I’m much more likely to want to say hello to someone who has a pleasant aura surrounding them versus someone who looks like...well, like someone who’s just been told they’re unattractive.

That was one of the hard things to digest about her comments to me. That she really did have a valid point, constructive criticism, and the views of an impartial observer to share with me for my benefit. As much as it hurt to hear it, there was a truth in what she said. But it was presented in a way that made it virtually impossible for me to not feel damaged by it. I would have said it differently, if I’d said it at all. I would have considered her feelings first and the fact that I was teaching her something valuable second…not the other way around. What’s interesting in retrospect, though, is that in that one moment, that one experience was the perfect crystallization of the differences between us. Our motivations and intentions were constantly at odds because we were just…different people. Distinctly different, no matter how much we complemented each other. The differences were beyond repair, though the reality is that no repair – on the most basic level, anyway – was necessary. We just were what we were, individually and as a pair.

And it doesn’t matter how many times I say it or write it or believe it...I’ve never been able to accept it. To this very day. And I’m not sure I ever will, for reasons that are too scattered to be able to gather up and examine all at once.

However, that’s not the point. I forget what made me start thinking about this. Or maybe I think about it all the time. But I’ve gradually learned over the years that, apparently, my default facial expression looks perhaps a little…intimidating or sullen or grumpy or depressed or...I don’t know. I just know that it doesn’t give the impression of inherent happiness or friendliness, by most accounts.

The people who are closest to me know, of course, that I am a pretty good guy. That I am actually usually trying to amuse other people whenever possible. That I am, indeed, a very friendly person once I’m comfortable enough with someone’s presence. That I am quite generous, caring and supportive, despite my tendency to try and appear removed from many things. I do have serious inhibition issues, I know that much. That contributes to my demeanor at any given moment, I’m sure. I don’t know if I looked “happier” as a child or if this is something that’s (d)evolved over the years...

So, short story long...How do you people who look so friendly and happy and non-threatening...how do you keep your faces that way? Is it a conscious thing? Is it something you can learn to do? Or is it just how you’ve always been? (And you know who you are, so you’d better fucking chime in with some advice or insight or something...)

I’ve adopted a few philosophies that have come to mean a lot to me over the last few years. Some to the point where I’ve had them permanently inked on my body; others that I just keep written on a chalkboard in a hallway at home.

One…that it is absolutely as important to unlearn as it is to learn things as you grow older. And it probably takes more effort to unlearn than it does to learn something. We unintentionally teach ourselves (or are taught by others) a lot of really damaging shit over the course of a lifetime.

Another little something I created for myself just sort of materialized as a thought while I was, I swear to god, cleaning my toilet. (The potential for symbolism is staggering.) Anyway, it was just the phrase, “Your inside is a mirror; your outside a window.”

How fucking brilliant is that? (Or meaningless...I’m still not sure. But it sounds cool, yes?)

Why the expression came to me when it did, the way it did, is beyond me. But I wrote the shit down, I remember that much. I’m still trying to figure out the myriad ways in which it’s true (and isn’t). On a basic level, it just feels correct for me somehow. The first part of it is really nothing more than a reinterpretation of the notion that it isn’t what happens to you that determines who you are, but how you react to it...how you respond – whether by choice or by instinct – to the information and experiences you are witness to. But the second part of that phrase...I may have been thinking about why I love getting tattoos so much and what they mean to me. Or I may have been wondering how others see me, physically speaking. Whether people see me and read the expression on my face at any given time as some sort of clue as to what I may be thinking or how I’m feeling. And if I appear as unhappy or unpleasant as I’ve been led to believe I appear, whether most folks would just as soon keep on walking rather stop to say hello. I probably would if I were them. All of us prefer to be invited or to feel welcome, myself included. So why is it that my face takes it upon itself to communicate the opposite...?

That’s really not me, I promise. It’s just the way I’m shaped...

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Fargo Girl said...

Wow, that was really something. Good for you.

I can't be of any help with the smiley face thing, because as you know, we've had this conversation and my "resting face" is also unapproachable and because I am a woman, I think it would be considered "bitchy."

A short story that relates...several years ago I was walking in a mall with a bunch of friends. As we were going into one of the large department stores, a security guard basically came running over to us and stopped in front of me. Of course, I'm thinking, "shit, what did I do?" She said, "I just wanted to tell you that you have the greatest smile. I was watching you guys come in and when you smiled, it lit up your whole face."

So I got the message a little more gently than you. And her words were nice, but it doesn't really help because I know I can't be smiling all the time. Or even look pleasant all the time. And I don't want to. I hate those people. They freak me out. I think there is something wrong with them.

I love your face exactly how it is. It is you. Please don't become one of the freaky people. Stay your dark, sarcastic, irreverant, rather black self. And smile when there is a reason to smile...

From the girl who turned your friggin frown upside down...

10:53 PM  

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