Cracking a Smile

I was walking to work the other day when I ran into one of the women who work in my building. “Smile, it can’t be all that bad.” I give her a perfunctory grin to make her happy. I thought “Man, do I look that serious? I’m not in a bad mood – I haven’t looked at my desk yet.” I run into another fellow employee about fifty feet up the mall who tells me one of her funny one-liners as we pass each other. This time I crack a genuine smile. Then, for the first time ever, for reasons I still don’t know, I attempt to hold that expression. I hold it for a quarter of a mile, passing other fellow workers who smile back at me. I smile all the way into my office building. At the elevator a woman who rarely addresses me smiles and says hello. She addresses me by name and asks how I am doing.

“Hmm, maybe this smiling thing is something I should work on,” I say to myself. But by this time my facial muscles begin to ache, you know, like your legs do on the day after the first ski trip of the season. I have always been told I look too serious. In family pictures there are two faces of me: the candid ones where I look like I belong in a Bergman film and the staged ones where my mom, her arms akimbo, says “Smile, this is [Insert name of any festive occasion].”

Most of the people who know me think I’m a nice guy; maybe a little too self-absorbed at times, but not enough to warrant them thinking that I’m nursing a hemorrhoid or plotting their bloody demise. Then again, I can remember these guys telling people I am a “nice guy” – as if my friends don’t think I did a good enough job conveying that message directly.

I once interviewed for a job I just knew I was going to get. Looking back on the experience now and considering the other applicants, I am not so sure I had this one cinched up. Still, the guy who got the job – someone who worked under me – said he thought he got position because he’s an “easy-going guy.” I should have read into that, but I was too pissed about not getting the position and humiliated that someone under me was chosen. I didn’t smile for weeks. If someone would have told me back then “Smile, it can’t be all that bad” I would have broken a window!

I’ve heard from outside sources (the inside source being my mother) that smiling is good for you – both muscularly and emotionally. There have been scholarly studies done on this. Can you imagine getting a Masters in Smiling? There is even such a thing as “Laughter Yoga.” (Don’t laugh, here’s the URL: http://www.laughteryoga.org/.) Laughter Yoga is supposed to help people with their self-esteem, stress, depression, urges to kill someone, et al by making them laugh and smile. I can just see myself in organic cotton sweats, assuming a yoga pose on my mat surrounded by a bunch of old sour pusses, and requesting to the Master Laugher to put in my Dave Chappell DVD: “Hey fast-forward to the skit about the crack whore. Damn that’s a riot!”

On those rare occasions that I smile or laugh I can also feel a little foolish. I was eating orange chicken at the local Panda Express and reading an article in The New Yorker by David Sedaris. Try attempting to suppress laughter while reading and eating orange chicken and fried rice – it can get messy. I don’t know how many people saw me. I must have looked kind of crazy with the orange sauce dribbling down my chin and the tears rolling down my cheeks. My wife tells me I have a great laugh, if not a tad too loud at times; a rather eccentric friend tells me he hates viewing comedies with me because my cackle drowns-out the actors’ following lines. He says he prefers to watch comedies like “Airplane!,” “Young Frankenstein,” and Marx Brothers films in absolute silence. He says he laughs hours later when he is at home.

I think I’m going to work on my smile. Currently, I’m wearing a stress-induced mask like the local undertaker. It will take some practice to crack the ice. Perhaps I’ll rip some Dave Chappell, Chris Rock, and vintage Firesign Theatre on my MP3 player and walk around the office, earbuds in place, laughing my rear end off.

Tango and Altoids

I’m standing in a circle in one of the studios normally used for aerobic or step exercises. With my tongue I jockey an Altoid around my mouth – the last of many I’ve been popping since I got off work and made my way to the health club. I look around the circle, checking out my fellow classmates – mostly couples.

In the middle of the circle is Rebecca, a tall, dark-haired woman with a black beaded cocktail dress and three-inch stiletto heels. Her partner, Aaron, is also in black with black suede dancing shoes with Cuban heels – cool.

This is the first night of Argentine Tango lessons sponsored by the athletic club I belong to. I love Argentine Tango, but my self-consciousness makes dancing – even with my wife of 18 years – a mixed bag of emotions. I continue because I believe I will ultimately overcome these feelings and be able to fully appreciate this wonderful dance and the absolute hypnotic music we dance to.

After doing some warm-up exercises Rebecca tells us to find a partner. Immediately, all the women who came with men clutch on to their partners as if they had just been told the floor may drop out from under them. I can’t help but take this personal – like all these women checked me out when I walked in the studio and ran to their partners spitting “Please don’t make me dance with the short, bald guy!” I go counterclockwise past all the white knuckled women until I find a wallflower – usually an older woman who was told tango lessons would be much more fun than bingo.

Dancing is a strange activity. Its roots have a lot to do with the mating process, which makes the experience with a stranger all the more awkward. Argentine Tango pushes this awkwardness far beyond what I felt when I took waltz lessons from an ex-Arthur Murray teacher at work. When the few of us loners find partners and introduce ourselves, Rebecca and Aaron illustrate just how awkward this is going to be – they show us the close embrace: Rebecca leans into Aaron almost as if she tripped and crashed into Aaron’s chest; her face so close to his neck she could be whispering “Hey Aaron, check out the short guy who swallowed a whole tin of Altoids. Someone must have tipped him off about his breath.” They back off and show us the much more conservative “salon embrace.” Okay, that makes me feel a little better.

I check to see if the Altoids did their job by breathing in sharply through the mouth. Ooh, that almost hurts! My wife tells me I have bad breath when I get home from work, but when I go from work to the club and ultimately get real close to a stranger in a salon embrace I don’t have a bottle of mouthwash or a bagel to tame the acids raging in my empty stomach.

Tonight my wife is not with me – she has a college class, but even if she was present Rebecca suggests that switching partners is good so couples don’t end up “complementing each others’ mistakes.” My wife supports Rebecca’s suggestion so I’m out of luck whether she’s here or not.

My first partner is a woman who must be in her late 50’s/early 60’s and can’t be over five feet tall. This may not seem too bad if you know that I am only 5’6, but it is. Tango is all about intrusions – the leader placing his feet deep inside of the follower’s space. This lady’s little legs can’t create the space required to execute the proper steps — at least for a rookie like me. We trip and almost fall. She gets the idea that this is her fault, and while it really isn’t I’m frustrated enough to give the impression that it is. I look at all the previously white knuckled, 5’6ish women, now laughing and feeling good that they are with their dates and not with a stranger like me.

After we stumble through an otherwise wonderful tango by Astor Piazzolla it is time for the leaders (men) to move to the next follower (women). After I travel over half the entire distance of the circle, past all the white knuckled women I find Julie, a young woman at least five inches taller than me.

Tango is not meant for this kind of height difference – at least not where the woman would easily win the tip off in a basketball game against the man. When the music begins I realize I can’t even see over her shoulder to direct us around other couples; navigation must be done by dead reckoning. At least I don’t have to worry about stepping on her feet.

Time to change up; I finish the circle only to find I am back with the five foot lady. I finish the lesson with my two partners, check out of the club, and go to my car where I put in my Tango Nuevo CD and crank it up. Perhaps next week I can talk my wife into skipping class and going dancing with me, and then I’ll be the one with the white knuckles.

Faith, Liberals, and Biscuits

I had just sat down with my second-helping of eggs and sausage and a really good biscuit when I heard one of my brothers in Christos exclaim “God bless President Bush! We are so fortunate to have a godly man in the White House. Can you imagine how bad off we would be if Hillary becomes our next president?” Suddenly, the eggs and sausage didn’t look so good. The biscuit was still wonderful. I’m not one to lose my appetite for biscuits over something someone has said across the dinner table.

Every January I make the pilgrimage to Santa Nella, California for the annual Faithful Men’s Conference. Since 2001 we have been meeting here at “The Oasis of I-5” for speeches, prayers, hymns, fellowship, not to mention breaking bread. Faithful Men is sponsored by the IFCA International, which stands for Independent Fundamental Churches of America. Since I placed my trust in Jesus Christ I would never go back to the lukewarm churches I attended when I was a child and later when I was courting my wife and attended church with her because she wanted to go and I didn’t want to be without her.

The thing is I have been a liberal far longer than I have been a Christian. Now there are plenty of churches out there where the pews, as well as pulpits, are filled with liberals, but I have found that most churches do not believe in the literal interpretation of the Word of God. I think whenever man says “Well the books of Job and Jonah are only allegories and shouldn’t be taken literally” then you’ve got flawed humans telling other flawed humans what God really meant: a faith based on human interpretation – scary.
Since a true fundamentalist will leave politics out of sermons, theology, Bible studies, prayer meetings, etc., I can attends these functions, like Faithful Men, and worship my God without feeling like I am at a Republican Party fund raiser – which has as much appeal to me as being cast into the Lake of Fire.
It’s the road trip conversations – where there’s nowhere to go but out the door into a tuck and roll on the Interstate; the comments in the dinning area, and the discussions between speakers when we are not studying God’s word where I wonder if anyone will see my ACLU membership card when I open my wallet to leave a tip; those are the trying times for this left-winger. “Hey, you know that Berkeley church group that made it out here? Did you know many of them belong to a Young Republican’s group right on campus? Praise the Lord, there’s some straight arrows at ‘Bezerkeley’ after all.” Or “Bill’s son died in Iraq. You know, it really gets my dander up to see all those Democrat congressmen criticizing President Bush.” [One nice thing about these men is that they never cuss, even if their choice of words seems hopelessly corny.]
Of course there are some political subjects that are so deeply woven into Christian theology that they cannot be avoided even in serious study: abortion rights and Gay/Lesbian rights, to name only two. Nobody here has asked me how I feel about Rowe vs. Wade; I quietly eat my biscuit.