A familiar scene: a parent asks their child to do something (or, equally as often, not to do something), only to find that her Mini-Me replica doesn’t want to cooperate without hearing a good reason first. This prompts the kid to ask the question “Why?” followed by “Why?” and then by “Why?” then reasonably proceeded by “Why? Why? But tell me why?” to which the parent snaps in exasperation, “Because I said so!”
When the delightful time comes for me to have this conversation with my own Crocs-sporting child, I’m going to have to change this expression to “Because my face said so!,” and she will know I mean it.
While riding on BART last year from San Francisco to Walnut Creek, I met a man who was of a questionable mental and personal cleanliness state. When I saw him walk by on the platform the first time, I knew I wanted to avoid him. When he turned back around and stopped right in front of me, I knew I had to avoid him, lest I should have an extremely irritating trip. The whole time while waiting on the platform, I thought me and Neutral Face were doing all right for ourselves, maintaining our neutrality and keeping the crazies at bay. It wasn’t until we got on the train and he sat down next to me did I understand that I had been betrayed. By my own face.
I wanted my face to exude a distant calm coolness. An expression that communicated that I would most like to be left alone, in my coolness, and that I didn’t want any trouble, but if there were trouble, I had to give fair warning that somebody risked getting his feathers ruffled. But obviously, after 20 minutes of the crazy man talking incomprehensibly at me, I was sure my face did not say what I wanted it to. When the man started giving me high fives to signify to the whole train we were in cahoots together and began loudly condemning the lesbian couple sitting a few seats away from us, I’m pretty sure my Neutral Face was long gone and one that actually attracted crazy people had taken its place. This is what the new face said: I am really tired and not feeling like talking to anyone, especially not anyone crazy, but if you are crazy and in the mood to talk a lot and loudly, then please come talk to me, closely if you please, to teach me a lesson on how I need to appear more scary-looking when riding on public transportation in the future.
Now, that was just my face betraying me with a crazy person. Recently, my face has started betraying me with important people, which is what made me think I should try to get a grip on the situation and try to bring Neutral Face back. Just last week, after a peak of frustration, I walked to the kitchen for a cup of water. (Kind of like how smokers go outside to suck on their cigarettes and inhale and exhale their stress away, I walk to the water cooler for refills and refreshing sips of hydration as part of my stress management.) Who did I run into in my moment of angst except for a big man on campus who should not know, should never really ever know, that I have reached a peak of frustration. As he turned to face me, I realized I didn’t have enough time to run back from where I came, so I decided to stand there and to try to be as normal as possible. Smile, I thought. Smiling would make it normal. But I found that when I smiled it felt like my face was suddenly made of broken eggshells, and the longer I kept smiling the more cracks started to form.
How are you? he asked. I thought he might be referring to my cracked-up face, so I said Good. (Because I couldn’t think of anything else to say). And then I stopped smiling and started nodding, because nodding has yet to fail me. There is no other way to read nodding except to read it as, Yes, I am good. Believe you me, I am so good!
I don’t think he bought it. He walked over, slung an arm over my shoulder and told me it was going to be an exciting year. Then he said, “A recession is a terrible thing to waste.” Which made me think about that anti-drug ad campaign from when I was growing up that had the slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I don’t think that’s what he meant to get me to think about, but that’s what I found myself thinking about. That and how to get Neutral Face back.