General

Smile Baggage

A few days ago I had a chip in my left front tooth repaired, and I keep going to mirrors and smiling at them. The dental assistant did a really great job. It’s really hard to tell that there was a chip for 15+ years.

But I’ll probably be back to hating my smile again in a day or two, after the novelty has worn off. That’s neither here nor there… I’ve never liked to smile. Part of that stems from my lifelong discomfort with my teeth (Grandma, rest her soul, would inspect and comment on them every time we visited), but another reason I’ve never been a grinner comes from the fact that I am not a cheerful person, by and large. Most of the time, I’m neutral… happy is too strong a word for my usual mood, and I don’t like to go about aimlessly smiling (I do enough of that at work). But even as a kid, the constant pressure to smile and “be happy” all the time irked me. At school, they wouldn’t stop taking yearbook photos until everyone was smiling. The worst of it was when I was graduating… it was 87 degrees, somebody had already passed out, and because our caps and gowns were very light-colored, the tall people were getting blinded… but it was emphasized that the session would not end until everyone grinned (I thought of Sean Connery circa 1963 and bared my teeth. It was the last photo.)

The W.C. Fields quote, “just start every day out with a smile and get it over with,” sums up my feelings beautifully.

Especially when, as a woman, a lot of people tell me to smile… that I’ll get wrinkles if I don’t… I’ll look prettier if I smile… the usual litany of garbage. I know I’m quite ornamental, but there’s more to me than that. Besides…  some days there are other things to think about. Or just the fact that I’m up, about and civil is a victory. I don’t need unsolicited editorials. This was especially true in graduate school, when I was often physically sick and/or anxious or depressed.

Speaking of which… I don’t know how common this particular pressure to smile is, and whether it’s segregated by gender (although I suspect it’s more aimed at females), but in college I once received a lecture about how it was important to smile because not smiling at someone might be the final straw that pushes them to self-harm or suicide. It’s possible, of course, but that whole lecture never sat well with me. It was a lot of pressure, and it seemed too broad, considering that the fuss was about a very specific dorm issue (that I wasn’t even aware of).  But it still comes down to not smiling for yourself, but smiling aimlessly for the benefit of the rest of the world.

It’s heavy emotional labor, acting happy for the benefit of everybody else. It’s tiring. And there’s just not always time for it. There’s courtesy and respect, and there’s being a Stepford. Or a Smylex victim (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBWRHUVH3Z4).

And on that note, I’ll leave you. Because the Joker is always a tough act to follow (and live). Unless you’re Batman, and if you’re Batman, no one will tell you smile without fear of losing teeth. Just noting.

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My Own Dear Monster, Poor Unhappy Erik

One of the iconic shots of the make-up wizard.

One of the iconic shots of the make-up wizard.

Over the past year, I haven’t kept up with the blog.  This time last year I could blame my thesis.  Since I graduated, I just haven’t been able to create much of anything.  I’ve always been prone to periods of depression, and I’m this summer has probably been the worst batch of it since I was 13.  It’s zapped my energy and spirit, and I haven’t been able to do much of anything but go to work, be nice to the customers, and try to keep my spirits up with fluffy things when I get home.  But things are looking up, and it’s almost Halloween… my favorite non-liturgical holiday.

My depression, and the season, have made me think about one of my favorite monsters… the Phantom of the Opera.  I can’t say for sure, of course, because not even my memory goes back this far, but I think he might have been the first monster I ever “met.”  My dad likes to tell the story about how he took me for a walk in a city that once had storefronts, and we saw a 2-foot figure of the Lon Chaney Phantom in a window.  It made a big impression on me (I was one or two at the time), and Dad told me that the Phantom was very sad.  But not anymore.

It wasn’t quite the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it was close to it.  For years after that, the Phantom was the monster I was the most afraid of.  I had a stuffed Frankenstein Monster since kindergarten, felt sorry for the Wolfman, had one of my first crushes on Bela Lugosi when I was in 4th grade, and thought the Mummy was really tragic and scary.  But it was always the Phantom who made me feel something like fear.

Then I discovered the musical, which I still love to turn up when I have to work for a long stretch of time.  I read the book, and started seeing what I could of the movies.  Then I started to see some parallels.  I hated the way I looked and sometimes wanted to hide my face and body.  I did receive plenty of flak for my appearance, which only underscored those feelings.  And the only outlets I had were through art– in my case drawing and writing.  I could sing fairly well then, but it was never my big focus.

But the connection was formed.  I’m not entirely sure what the tipping point was.  Hell, it might have been the time I made a gory Phantom costume to myself, got to the Halloween block party, found it to be full of kindergartners, and subsequently I spent the rest of the time there hiding in the shadows, covering my face.   How Phantom can you get?

But beyond the Halloween episode… part of it comes down to a line from the book.  “All I ever needed to be good was to be loved.”  Poor, unhappy Erik!  And that might be at the heart of it.  Besides the Phantom’s appearance, I think he aroused discomfort in me more so than the other monsters because I was afraid of becoming what he was… or being what he was.   For years I hated the way I looked, and while I didn’t think I was a monster, it was hard to believe that anyone could be genuinely attracted to me.  Sometimes it wasn’t hard to believe that some weird underground lair where I could write and paint was the only place for me.

It’s not like that now, but I keenly remember it.  Most of us have probably been there at some point, and it might explain the Phantom’s enduring popularity (an easily identifiable figure despite his many flaws).  He’s passionate.  He’s intelligent.  He’s misunderstood.  He’s creative.  He’s ruthless. He’s sick.  There’s no place for him on the outside.

But he has something beyond that, that keeps him going and going for more than a century.  We’ll see if I have that, too.

So I send Erik my love, and I hope he finds some good wherever fictional characters spend their time.

 

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My Danish Love, or an Ode to Vodka

So wild and frosty is she thought to be.

And she brings fire to my lips, it is true.

Yet so gently she waits, not far from me,

ready for the days when my soul turns blue.

It may be shameful to covet her kiss,

so sharp and full of the fire of white nights.

Yet I am drawn to that cold, smoky mist,

to ease my pain, and to renew my might.

I take care not to love, need her too much,

but I have no wish to hide in the dark.

The world’s pain she dulls with her burning touch,

and there is no harm, in a one-off lark.

I feel guilty to use her so simply,

still, the Danes have taught me to drink deeply.

 

*****

Like this sonnet? Check out the rest of the book.

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