It's that time of year again. The season to be jolly. It seems that my lifelong campaign to make Christmas a centennial holiday has gained no momentum this year and the red-hatted Nazis of pleasantry are as busy as ever.
Over the years, my distaste for Christmas has distilled itself into simple objections. Whereas I once objected to the post-Halloween marathon for its imposition of Christian capitalism on every waking moment, now I simply hate what it asks my face to do: to smile.
I'm sure you've been tormented by a Pollyanna in your life with the information that it takes more of the face's 40-odd muscles to frown than to smile. Thus it's economical to smile, dammit. Of course, this has nothing to do with authenticity and spontaneity. If a smile plastered on the face is intrinsically valuable, so is a pleasant lie. A Stepford wife is a better human being than a Hamlet.
Now, don't get me wrong. I have no objection to a genuine smile. I can even acknowledge the utility of smiling intentionally now and then. Years ago, I took a meditation workshop with the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh and he advised us to keep a "half-smile" on our faces at all times. This is the serene face of the Buddha. I did find, just as everyone claims, that the gesture itself tends to evoke a pleasant feeling. Groovy.
That's not the same as being brow-beaten to smile. A few months ago, I met a friend at a popular country-western bar. Typically, I'd rather be set on fire than hang out in a country-western bar. The music annoys me and the sight of people wearing belt buckles big enough to eat dinner on gives me the willies.
So I'm sipping a drink, waiting for my friend. Suddenly, a man in a cowboy hat appears in front of me. He looks like Gomer Pyle with blond highlights leaking out of his hat. "Hey!" he shouts. "You need to smile! This here is a friendly bar!"
Ugh. I've heard this a lot in my life. I used to feel bad about it. Now I fight back. I looked at the smile cop and barked back: "If this bar's so damn friendly, how 'bout lettin' me be myself, pardner?"
The vacuously smiling don't enjoy such responses. Gomer boot-scooted himself to a cluster of fellow smilers and shot me dirty looks between displays of his bleached teeth to others. The behavior revealed what ought to be obvious: A mandatory smile is often a mask for its opposite. In that world, a smile is like a cowboy hat, something to be put on to maintain a costume of social cohesion at any cost.
Ironically, a few days later I was in another bar and a woman with more hair than Rapunzel piled on top of her head put herself in my path and said to me in Loretta Lynn's voice: "Damn! You are a mean-looking motherfucker! How 'bout givin' me a smile?"
I shot her my blindingly beautiful sneer.
"Whoa!" she said. "You could hurt someone with that look. You'd be real nice looking if you just smiled."
I shot her my serene-as-Buddha half-smile.
"That's a little better," she said, like a charm school teacher giving encouragement. "I just hate to see someone unhappy."
This, of course, is the favorite belief of the compulsively smiling -- that those of us who glower, sneer or just look impassive must be unhappier than them. By this logic, the measure of one's happiness is one's willingness to talk to boring people like Loretta and Gomer.
"I'm not unhappy," I said to Loretta. "For one thing, I'm not wearing my glasses and I tend to squint, so I might look like I'm frowning. Also, when someone criticizes the way I look, I tend to get defensive." I looked at her hair, which looked like a nest of black snakes entwined about one another. "Your hair is real pretty," I said.
"Oh thank you!" she said, blushing, touching the snakes lightly.
Then, to my amazement, she asked me if I'd like to be in some advertisements for her business. "Onliest thang is," she said, "you'd have to smile!"
"What if my sneer is the source of my beauty?" I joked.
"Huh?" she replied. I moved on, smiling.
The pressure to smile becomes unbearable during the Christmas season. The unsmiling are openly demonized in the figure of Scrooge. It is my fantasy to invade a mall and set up my own little shop opposite the place where children line up to visit Santa. The unsmiling will be invited to bring their little ones to sit on my lap.
"Have you been good this year?" I'll ask, looking at them sternly. "Because I hope you haven't been too good. Parents shouldn't be unduly respected and you should give expression to all your feelings, including your negative ones. Do you enjoy frowning? Yes? That's a good little girl! Now, go have a tantrum to protest that you're not going to get everything you want, because, really, nobody deserves that, including you, and it sucks."
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