Thursday, September 20, 2012

You're never fully dressed without a smile.

Noah is awake but playing a video game so I should probably shut up. But he's so good to talk to... Really we should be sleeping. It is 3:26am. Oh well.

When I'm out running I write these eloquent blog posts in my head. Then I get home and sit in front of the computer and think, "hunh my wrists are tingling. Maybe another day."

It's weird to me the ways things intersect. I keep seeing people bringing up the whole "Don't tell women to smile at you" thing on the internet. I don't appreciate it when random people tell me to smile like I don't appreciate random people telling me anything. But I put a lot of energy into trying to smile at people. It almost feels like I shouldn't.

I feel like a bad feminist pretty much all the time. I very consciously try to smile at people and cheerfully say, "Hello" when I pass them. I'm fairly religious about this when I run. Seriously--this is my church. I go out into my community, likely the only community I will have for the rest of my life, and I smile at people and I tell them to have a good day. It lights peoples' faces up. The small shriveled old Asian ladies look suspicious at first sometimes. If they look suspicious in English I try "Ni how" (I know I am spelling that wrong. I probably pronounce it wrong but they don't yell at me.) or "Chao" because I was told that was ok. (That's Chinese and Vietnamese for those who don't automatically recognize my poor battered phonetic spellings.) I do try to guess which one is appropriate in advance. I have a high success rate but not perfect. When I get it wrong they look startled for a moment then laugh. When I switch languages again then they get very happy with me.

People want to feel important. People want to feel like they are worth seeing and speaking to for who they are. Not everyone wants to be told they should be like me and expecting everyone in the world to be happy about hearing English is expecting everyone in the world to be like me. I try to say hello to people because whether they like me or not they are my neighbors. If they need help I will stop and try to help.

Once when I was out running I came across a Vietnamese woman who had tripped and hurt herself. She was probably in her 60's or 70's. She was quite frail. I helped her up and I walked her home. I half carried her. She spoke very little English. Just enough to apologize for living. I was very happy to help her. She's my neighbor. When I was running in SF I went passed an older woman who was carrying heavy bags. She would walk a block then put them down to rest. I happened to go around that block three times (don't ask why--it wasn't about her) so I stopped and asked her if I could help. She was so happy. (I can also usefully offer help in Spanish. I'm starting to feel less like I am a pathetic linguist.)

I feel like being part of a community will be the closest I have to a church. I live in Fremont. I am likely to live here forever. I don't want to treat this like a commuter town or one of my brief stops. I don't want to sleep here and "live" somewhere else I drive to every day. Ugh. No. I want to meet the people who live near me. I want to get to know faces. I want to have people grow to expect that weird cheerful woman at the park. I want to have a role and a place. I want to belong.

No one wants more tragedy. They don't go looking for it. One of my favorite things I did as a teacher was when I was doing a unit on tragedy. We were having a huge argument on whether tragedy as a genre was obsolete. My little bastards were campaigning hard to say tragedy was just over. Except one kid. My little gang banger. She dropped out in the middle of my second year with her. I loved her. She told me that she was my Brown Eyes. That was her special name and she wanted me to know it. I think it was the equivalent of being a biker and it being her "ride" name. I could be wrong. Anyway, she came in after school one day and said,

"Gibbs. So. You keep saying that this tragedy shit isn't dead. I have a song I want you to listen to. I think it might count." She brought in her ipod and played me a song.

It would be fair to say that the song was impactful on me. It made me cry the first time I heard it and every time thereafter. Yes. That is modern tragedy. Thank you for sharing. So I took that song that my wonderful Brown Eyes brought me and I played in every section I taught. I had them write a response and talk about it. We tore the song apart in terms of figurative language, metaphor, simile, exposition, climax, denoument, blah blah blah. All The Stuff English Teachers Do.

A parent called me (on my cell phone which was hilarious because I forgot I put it on the syllabus and I kind of freaked out at first) to ask about it. She said her son came home saying his English teacher played him a song about a rapper who rapes his mom and she can't see how that is relavent to English literature thankyouverymuch. I went off for half an hour about music and poetry and literature and how they intertwine and how genres morph and in order to get kids to understand the full scope and power of the language you have to examine different ways of using it and and and. I had a good argument at the time. I don't remember it well this bright and early morning. The mom thanked me for caring so much about helping her son understand the world and we hung up.

I bring the tragedy with me everywhere I go. I'm kind of Debbie Downer and I deliver. I also smile. Even though I tell the worst stories and make people cry I also make people smile. I'm very good at making people smile.

I am not a graceful runner by any measure. I look pretty funny. That's ok. I am grinning fit to split my face and I call out a cheerful and ebullient hello to everyone I pass. The only people who don't smile back are Middle Eastern guys with specific patterns of hair cuts and facial hair. It's kind of weird. I can predict which three people will scowl at me before they do. There are always three people who scowl at me. Some days there are up to a hundred people who smile at me.

There are the half-smilers who are doing it for social compulsion reasons. I barely count them. Ok, they are part of the crowd but they are kind of tuning me out.

You can't tell for sure who will light up. That's a wonderful surprise every time. Often it is the people I have to try multiple languages before they "wake up" and notice I am talking to them. (This all happens fast because I am reasonably speedy.) If someone totally tunes me out in English and I try a second language with no response and I try a third language and they look up sometimes there are tears in their eyes. There was one woman in particular yesterday. She looked up shocked. Then her face transformed. She was beautiful. She looked very sad. I doubt she has had an easy life. She looked so happy to be noticed. I feel kind of bad that I try Chinese before Vietnamese sometimes because I can't tell Asian races apart very well. I feel like a tremendous asshole. I'm trying. I swear.

If this is the only community I am going to have I need to find a way to fit. I need to find things that I can do that are useful and good. I can't do a lot for most people in most ways. I can take care of myself and smile at people though.

Which brings me back to people being really fierce about how women don't owe anyone smiles. No, they don't. No one owes anyone anything. I don't owe anyone anything.

I smile and say hello in between crying jags. I do it because it lets me feel like I have some way of interacting with people that is ok. It lets me feel like I am not alone. I greet the people who live near me because that is the civilized thing to do. We share this space. Let's act like it. Let's act like we are both real people here and I'm the kind of person who likes to smile at people. I don't think that everyone has to do it. I don't get mad at the three people each day who scowl at me. But I keep smiling at everyone. Regardless of the fact that some people won't smile back.

I don't smile because anyone owes me anything in response. I smile because I am doing the fake-it-till-you-make-it thing. It does elevate my mood. I like provoking smiles. I like the little half smiles of, "Oh you are one of those people" as much as I like the earnest grins. I like being recognized (with an eye roll) as one of those cheerful people. It's kind of a relieving experience. It's nice to be pigeonholed like that instead of as the tragedy girl for a little while. It's nice when people look at me without flinching.

I smile at people because first impressions are a big thing. People decide a lot about you by what they see first. I try not to be sobbing or a screaming harpy when people first see me. Smiling seems like a better plan.

Ah, and I haven't done my full confession. At this point I bring before the confessional the unhappy fact that I have now hit Shanna for the second time. I was sitting on the floor with Calli working on something (I can't even remember what) and Shanna kicked me in the head. The first kick was only like a three or a four (out of a ten pain scale) so I looked up and said, "Please don't kick me. I don't like being kicked." She giggled and kicked me in the head again much much harder. My hand was up smacking her foot away from me before I had time to register a thought. See, this is why I don't sit around sober. I was waiting for park day so I was fully sober (Have to drive, yo) and I didn't have that second of pause. With the pause I can grab the foot and prevent it from kicking me again without doing the random arm wave of "Pain! Do not want!" All this to say: I'm not losing sleep and I don't think I am an abuser.

Thus I have hit my kid twice. Both times she was kicking me quite painfully and I swatted her foot. No guilt. But I did apologize to Shanna immediately. Hitting isn't the right answer. I'm sorry my impulses aren't properly under my control.

I want to write about money. I had three, THREE separate friends all say, "I'm having a hard time with money" within a six day period. I feel like I should write about money. Not in this entry. It's coming.

I think it is interesting how there are discrete mood phases of depression for me. I'm not actively suicidal at the moment and I haven't had any vivid ideation in at least two days (woo!) so instead I'm in kind of a hazy place where I have slightly more energy and I want to be interacting and I want to be giving more to people (I hate the fact that I need so much help right now--I feel like a using piece of shit.) but I can clearly see how I don't really have it to spare. So it's like I'm wandering around my kitchen with a big box and I'm slowly trying to decide which things to give to the food pantry but... uhm... all that food is in my kitchen because I'm supposed to feed my family with it. It isn't "extra". But I still want to give it away. I will feel better about myself if I give it away. My family will just figure it out, right? We'll just do without.  But I can't. I can't do that to my kids all the time.

Once I asked my mom about her childhood. She said she was never important. When she was little her parents cared about her older siblings. When her older siblings started moving out her mother started fostering and the foster kids were way more important than her. The foster kids would show up with clothes and toys from their home of origin and my mother wasn't allowed to touch their things. But they would steal my moms stuff and break it. She got in trouble if she complained because she wasn't being properly charitable. My mom said that sometimes her mother would buy a special doll for a foster kid so the kid felt loved while she didn't have one at all. Her mom would say, "But you have other blessings. God isn't equal to everyone. You need to be grateful for what you have."

I think about my mom a lot. I think about how badly she was treated by her parents and her siblings and her husband. She was at the bottom of the shit hill until I was born. My sister kind of took a turn there but not really. My mom protected her the way I protect Shanna. My sister was never really at the bottom of the hill. I think about what it did to my mom. I think about what she grew up to be.

I plot in advance what things I should or should not say to people in order to increase the likelihood that they will like me. I'm confident this is normal. Noah appears to be done with his internetting. That was like 45 minutes of writing. I'll stop now.


  1. Insightful, erudite, poignant; another excellent piece of writing. Eliciting a smile is pretty much the opposite of requiring (even in the guise of a "request") one. Good on you.

  2. I started smiling more sometime in the past 5 years. I learned that my face in repose was projecting something different from what I was feeling, and that I didn't like how people responded to that. I also hate to be told to smile-- because it usually came with some "you don't have any reason NOT to smile" attitude. Do I often have reasons not to smile? Sure. But more important to me is that I often also have a reason to smile, and choosing to smile gives me MORE reasons to smile.

    1. That's fairly similar to my "logic" such as it is.

  3. Smiling does improve your mood, just by doing it, and by sharing that smile with others, you in turn improve their mood. I don't think it's un-feminist to smile. I think it's being generous and Contributing to the betterment of society. I'm sure I'll get flamed for making such a big deal out of it, but I really think kindness and consideration could go a long way toward saving our society.

    As for smacking a foot that is kicking you? Fuck anybody that says you shouldn't. There's a big difference in my mind, between a defensive, provoked smack, and punitively beating the shit out of somebody to teach them a lesson. I've done the same thing: smacked an arm or leg either out of defense of my own person or the little sister. And I've apologized afterward, but I've also explained that she had fair warning that she was doing something that was making me very upset and that when you get people really angry, sometimes they don't stay in control of their emotions and react poorly.