New York & Toronto: journal 1

Tuesday August 22

When my brother the doctor is not on call, he decompresses by setting his smart phone to airplane mode. I am on airplane mode at this moment, serene at 39,000 feet viewing the fruited plain from a 737, untethered from the constancy of digital connection and liberated from the tyranny of the lightning rod phone collecting emails, instagrams, texts, and breaking blurbs from the The Huffington Post about what Donald just tweeted to a bifurcated nation. I am on my way to Philly via Southwest Airlines where Karen will pick me up and we’ll get a hoagie bigger than a football and eat it while driving north to Utica, NY. The view from the upper atmosphere is soft and slow, more ancient and eternal. Kentucky is a checkerboard of bluegrass and tobacco farms. I have a distinct sense that I’m calmer when disconnected from the technology that has reduced my social construct from handshakes and hugs, to something less, finger swipes and clicks.

Between the rolling hills of Kentucky and the farms of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania I read an article titled, “Has the smartphone destroyed a generation?” Jean M. Twenge, Atlantic September 2017

Here are a few compelling quotes from her article:

“In the early 1970’s, the photographer Bill Yates shot a series of portraits at the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in Tampa, Florida. In one, a shirtless teen stands with a large bottle of peppermint schnapps stuck in the waistband of his jeans. In another, a boy who looks no older than 12 poses with a cigarette in his mouth.

The rink was a place where kids could get away from their parents and inhabit a world of their own, a world where they could drink, smoke, and make out in the backs of their cars. In stark black-and-white, the adolescent Boomers gaze at Yate’s camera with the self-confidence born of making their own choices–even if, perhaps especially if, your parents wouldn’t think they were the right ones.”

Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink - 1972-1973

“…the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives–and making them seriously unhappy.”

I listen to the blissful snoring of a rotund man in seat 6A, while musing about an unfettered childhood riding a bike without a helmet as the risk of cracking my skull seemed directly proportional to my joy and speed. I remember many of those kids in the roller rink with the liquor and cigarettes. I wonder where they are now.


On Community

On a recent vacation, I was driving in Denver and saw out of the corner of my eye the passenger window coming down at a busy intersection. My friend Bob rolls down the window and has a bill crumpled in his hand. He yells out at a gritty, ragged homeless man who is seated but now trying to get on his feet, “How ya doin’? Don’t get up…here, I’ll throw it too you.” And he tosses a crumpled bill at the man’s feet. Bob rolls up the window and I said, “What did you throw?” Bob replies, “A $100 bill.” I told Bob, “You went to heaven and hell in one sentence.”

Bob meets homeless folks on vacation while I take a more vocational tack. My laptop is nearby, the cell phone rings continuously, and texts chime like streaming points in a Bally pinball game. Even within the slower cadence of vacation, the fourth commandment of the Decalogue is being trampled beneath the virtuous feet of vocation.

According to David Brooks writing for the New York Times in an article titled, The Great Affluence Fallacy, “Antisthenes, a Greek cynic philosopher, is cited as one of the first to equate effort with goodness and virtue. He coined the original workaholic paradigm. Antisthenes,

  • Had no feeling for celebration.
  • Was a-musical.
  • Felt no responsiveness to Eros (he said he “would like to kill Aphrodite”)

Mr. Brooks goes on to say, “Leisure does not mean what it once meant. The word leisure came from a Greek word translated into Latin as the word we now use for school. We have lost the meaning of leisure in our rush to perfect our work.”

What’s replaced our traditional idea of leisure is vocation. Our vacations are mild repetitions of our vocations.

Flying back from Denver to Tulsa I glanced over and noticed that Karen was reading a historical book of Summit county Colorado which includes Breckenridge, Silverthorne, and Frisco. Karen is practicing the way of classical leisure, slowing down long enough to learn about the places that we visit.

My daughter and her husband live in the Lohi section of Denver. They are house sitting for a young lady who is spending several months in India training in yoga. They maintain the row style shotgun duplex with a backyard a bit larger than a ping-pong table, in return for lodging and they are also surrogate parents to a couple of rescue dogs, Sunny, a small wispy female, and Trout, a spunky young male. Twice a day, the dogs are walked, and when the leash is in hand and the door knob turns, they growl and turn on each other in a flurry of fur as they engage in a little WWF dog fighting.

Lohi (lower highlands) is an eclectic neighborhood with top shelf restaurants like Root Down, Spuntino, Linger, and the Gallop Cafe. Around the corner is the American Cultures Kombucha Taproom where we enjoyed a sampler of teas with names like Happy Leaf and Rowdy Mermaid. There is a sense here of what John Denver sang about nearly 50 years ago, the Rocky Mountain high of friends sitting around a campfire looking at the Perseid meteor showers on a moonless, cloudless night.

There are churches next to funky bistros and many used bookstores in this lovely old neighborhood with a history going back to the Arapahoe, Shoshones, and Utes, living along the banks of the Platte River hundreds of years ago. Living in the Highlands today is like living atop an archaeological tel, the geography is littered with events and names and people and places.

After the Arapahoe and Shoshone and Utes, the Italians and German and Latinos came. The old churches, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Patrick’s, are beautiful and have absolutely no parking. You park on the street, as best you can. I became adept at parallel parking a Chevy Suburban in this neighborhood which should qualify me for a CDL. There are layers upon layers of history here, new layers added each generation. Now, this neighborhood is experiencing gentrification and is a mixture of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life  and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with a splash of Sixties tie dye and Nineties grunge.

David Brooks writes about the challenges facing young adults like my daughter and son-in-law. He says, “A few years ago, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis came out with a song called “Can’t Hold Us,” which contained the couplet: “We came here to live life like nobody was watching/I got my city right behind me, if I fall, they got me.” In the first line they want complete autonomy; in the second, complete community. But, of course, you can’t really have both in pure form. This is transformational, but not new. I am unique and yet like everyone else. I am free and yet I still belong. Young folks today are heading, it seems, in the direction of community and neighborhood hospitality, rather than national identity or the borderless digital world.”

Mr. Brooks quotes Sebastian Junger’s book, “Tribe”, which raises the possibility that our culture is built on a fundamental error about what makes people happy and fulfilled. Junger writes about the American Indian and about how they were more communal. “They would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.” Mr. Brooks goes on to say, “Our institutions can offer only service — not care — for care is the freely given commitment from the heart of one to another…Maybe we’re on the cusp of some great cracking. Instead of just paying lip service to community while living for autonomy, perhaps people are actually about to change and immerse themselves in local communities.”


Blessed are the Biscuit Eaters

If you’ve ever wondered what goes on in the mind of an introvert writer, here it is. We like judging people. Not in the indicting sense, but rather as a playful mind game that often displaces conversation. Shame on us who prefer an imagined conversation rather than reality. It does, however, assuage the boredom of unthinking silence.

I had just ordered a maple bacon biscuit from a cafe on the edge of the Florida State University campus and after presenting payment, the young lady working the register casually threw a question at me which I considered for three seconds then replied, “eternal life.”

The question she asked? “What is the best gift you have ever received?”

I sat and waited for my biscuit. I noticed then, as food was ready to pick up, they called your answer out over the sound system. I thought, “They will look me over to see who the “eternal life” guy is. I began watching the steady stream of folks picking up their food as their answers were proclaimed.

“Life” was an older lady who shuffled and had a kindly face. I bet she makes great blackberry cobbler.

Mr. “no answer” seemed withdrawn, perhaps an introvert busy judging others without time to consider the question and reply in a measured and proper way?

“salvation in Jesus” seemed evangelical middle-of-the-Bible belt girthy…whatever that means..

“family to love again” was mysterious, and I wondered about what had happened in her life to make her need to have a family to love again.

“My wife”, I think he mailed that one in and would have gotten a tongue lashing with any other answer.

“my daughter” made me think of the two great daughters I have

“Scholarship” was young, probably FSU student, maybe weighs 140 lbs dripping wet, academic rather than Seminole football

“dog” round kindly face, yes, I’m thankful for Abby, my dog also. She gets left out of way too many prayers.

If I ever eat at the Maple Street Biscuit again, I’m going to order everything on the menu just so I can sit and watch the people again, walking, shuffling, strutting, strolling, eating biscuits, bacon, and pure maple syrup while considering life and how they answered that question.

How would you have answered?

Thanksgiving Man

Yesterday I experienced two moving moments. One was simple, a man walking along a sidewalk in my hometown. He was arguing passionately with someone, but he was totally alone, his actions said that he was invisible, and I felt sad. The second moment was poignant and filled my soul with warmth. It happened after my wife and I received one of those phone calls a parent dreads. As I watched my son being hugged by cousins and his sister, I couldn’t help but think that once that man on the street had experienced warmth and touch and the comfort of shared words. Thanksgiving is being aware, not just aware of blessings and reacting with gratitude, but awareness of our hurt and loneliness. I don’t know how to write poetic verse, but it just seemed appropriate to write about these two moments in verse even if I don’t know the rules of poetry.

Thanksgiving Man

A brisk clear wind swirls leaves under
my tires as I drive along the avenue
Thanksgiving Eve and I feel full
warm and happy as I see a man striding toward me
on the sidewalk soaking up everything he owns
the sun and wind on his face
I glance at his weathered-beaten animated features
He is angry with his foe
his ragged beard bobs and sways as he screams into the breeze

An argument rages as he walks against the wind
against the sky
against his mind
fighting his words
struggling to convince himself
wrestling his better angels
he rages
slamming them to the sidewalk
he wages
an endless battle in the trenches of his mind
his words fall broken and shattered
to the cold hard sidewalk below

Followed everywhere by his warmth
his quiet companion
slung over his back
limply going for a ride
in the broad daylight of plenty
plenty of sun
plenty of wind
plenty of silence and the great outdoors

The cold hard street caresses
words unanswered, argument unheard
The invisible Thanksgiving Man
waits not for a reply
He speaks again, rebutting himself
His own voice, his own question
Louder, faster, furious, the argument
won and lost by the same man

Thanksgiving Man walks unseen
speaking words unheard
He steps briskly traveling nowhere
howling lonely cold words that nobody hears

In my warm house my cell phone rings
It’s my son, something has happened
I don’t understand, as my wife holds the phone
then hands it to me, and I hear his voice
I hear my son’s voice and he hears mine
Everything is fine, broken, replaceable
bendable, accidents happen
And he is ok, my son is ok
As I say thank you, thank you,
My words are floating in the warmth
Prayer together around a warm table
Warm hands held touching connecting
cosmic wonder divine airwaves

Thanksgiving Man hugs his quiet companion
As my son walks in the door
his sister and cousins run
group hugs
loud voices embrace my son and catch him before
he falls, on the sidewalk, alone

Surrounded by souls, caressed by voices
words warmed by touch
an abundance of love and food and table talk
My son hears and we hear and smile and talk and laugh
tonight my son sleeps in a
hammock slung in our recreation room
because he wants to sleep in a
hammock slung in our recreation room
in the warmth of our home, the Autumn of our Thankfulness

My son is not alone…I think of Thanksgiving Man
I wonder where he hangs his hammock
I wonder who hears his screams
I wonder who hugs his hurt
I wonder if he knows my son is ok tonight
sleeping in the warmth of his swaying hammock
in the glow and warmth of our Autumn of Thanksgiving

Nicholas Kristof writes clearly about thoughts that have been on my heart this Thanksgiving as we consider how we have been blessed and why we are thankful and if being thankful is simply a matter of accumulating on a scorecard how much better off we are than our neighbor. Here is what he wrote in the NY Times in an article about empathy and how we see other people…or how we don’t see them at all.

one of the strongest determinants of ending up poor is being born poor. As Warren Buffett puts it, our life outcomes often depend on the “ovarian lottery.” Sure, some people transcend their circumstances, but it’s callous for those born on second or third base to denounce the poor for failing to hit home runs.

John Rawls, the brilliant 20th-century philosopher, argued for a society that seems fair if we consider it from behind a “veil of ignorance” — meaning we don’t know whether we’ll be born to an investment banker or a teenage mom, in a leafy suburb or a gang-ridden inner city, healthy or disabled, smart or struggling, privileged or disadvantaged. That’s a shrewd analytical tool — and who among us would argue for food stamp cuts if we thought we might be among the hungry children?

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember that the difference between being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and genetics.

For those who are well-off, it may be easier to castigate the irresponsibility of the poor than to recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random chance and early upbringing.

Low-income Americans, who actually encounter the needy in daily life, understand this complexity and respond with empathy. Researchers say that’s why the poorest 20 percent of Americans donate more to charity, as a fraction of their incomes, than the richest 20 percent. Meet those who need help, especially children, and you become less judgmental and more compassionate.

Flashes of Wonder

If I wrote like my wife talks, I’d write narrative like a kid writing home from summer camp, “I had oatmeal for breakfast and we played softball and I outran all the boys in a foot race and we had hamburgers for dinner…” But, I write like a Red Bull-drinking cat on a hot tin roof, leaping from topic to topic not waiting to interrupt myself if new sentences emerge from side streets like kids chasing the siren song of the ice cream truck. Karen and I had such a good weekend that writing of it demands a linear narrative, so I’m writing as Karen might speak, with details and in order.

“What am I to do with all this good stuff?”, I asked Karen yesterday after a weekend of good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over. Friday we attended a seminar on Christian Evidences with a keynote by Josh McDowell and were amazed that the very principle he taught, the power of a nurturing father, emerged from his life despite paternal abuse and from that refining smelter of struggle has come the heart of a man who enables healing and cleansing through the power of God.

We dined at the Painted Horse Friday evening and spoke with the proprietor, Mark Spencer about his two-week old restaurant venture and about our daughters, Jenna and Hannah, and we chatted with Jason and Shelby Riggs and saw other old friends.

Saturday morning I shared a spinach omelette with Karen as we visited with Dad and my brother Greg, then we browsed at the Dewey Church of Christ buying bread pudding, crock pots and blankets with funds going to Kibo for water wells in Uganda. We saw the power of young people and how they sometimes teach us older folks. Makenzie Hyde and her sister, Larissa, along with Charli Martz, because they care about kids in Africa having clean water to drink and bathe, have pushed and inspired and helped the adults raise $6,000 for Kibo Group.
Family Makenzie Larissa

Saturday night we attended a Tulsa Symphony Orchestra production at the Lorton Performing Arts Center with guest singer Natalie Merchant, the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs who once instilled a love of dance and music in my son at the age of three. He enjoyed putting on his sisters tutu and whirling about the living room in a frenetic choreography while Natalie sang These Are Days. And so I bought an extra ticket if he wanted to go with us, but alas, he couldn’t.

I presented the extra ticket to the woman behind the glass and I heard a voice from behind me, a young man, exclaim, “Is that ticket available?” I said sure and gave the ticket to the young man who commenced thanking me repeatedly. His wife plays violin and he had come at the last-minute to see her. We talked at intermission and it turns out he’s a professional golfer and his wife a business consultant who plays violin with the Tulsa Symphony. I told him that a generation earlier, as a younger man with a wife and baby daughter, I had walked in his golf shoes and we spoke of the challenge of playing golf at high levels, of tour school pressure and life on the road.

Sunday, we heard a sermon about being noble vessels and were reminded that we are God’s poetry, that the beauty and power of God is manifest through our personhood, our containers of humanity, and in the evening we shared food and fellowship and talked about our lives and families and what we are doing in our work and passions, and we drove home with a greater investment in the lives of those who sit in the adjacent pew.

Sunday afternoon, I strolled along the fairways of the little golf course in my backyard and marveled at the warmth and sweetness of a brilliant, breezy autumn day, and recalled the words of G.K. Chesterton who remarked, “Here ends another day, during which I have had eyes, ears, hands and the great world around me. Tomorrow begins another day. Why am I allowed two?”
This weekend we experienced life in many forms…spiritual, relational, charitable, artistic, ethereal, physical, sensual…this reminded me of sitting outside a café in West Yellowstone, Montana enjoying a cup of coffee with Karen and basking in the sun gleaming through crystal mountain air. We had one of those formative moments, what do we do with this goodness, this beauty, a loveliness so pure it hurts to look away?

Most Americans equate a life well-lived with success. Abraham Joshua Heschel said this about success, “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder.” I once peered up at the soaring cliffs of Tracy Arm Fjord, stunned by naked beauty…pure spectacular wonder.

Nothing to touch, nothing to say, no smell, no sound…just uncontaminated vision. The Holy hand of the immaculate artist reaching down to share light and shading and texture and color and immense scale with me…a small, profane, inarticulate witness to majesty and wordless wonder. I found myself looking at other people, catching an eye, a glance. I said this to total strangers…”Can you believe this?”

Maybe our best response is not very sophisticated, but rather primitive and ancient and sounds like the percussion of our life drumming to an ancient rhythm born of our inner spirit and conducted by the greatest of conductors. If you see something beautiful do you name it?

I wrote a letter to my son about daily wonder and the hikes we have experienced together. “Keep looking up, keep walking strong, keep exploring passionately…and remember to till the soil of wonder deep inside your soul. It’s our connection from this temporal earthly place to the cosmic eternal where all is wonder. The best part for me has always been wondering what’s just around the next boulder or switch back. Just ahead on the trail is a stream, the next mile is unknown, just beyond that a bluff, thunder and lightning, a bear smells us, then we see the bear, an ancient wall telling us tales…keep walking. There’s plenty of time to rest at the end of the trail.”

What do I do with all this goodness? Here’s to slowing down to soak in the wonder of weekends that too often go by in a whirlwind of busy noise. Just as Elijah pulled his cloak to his face and listened as a whisper brought him to the mouth of a cave, I’m listening to the whisper of my friends gentle voices, and music that makes my feet skip and my soul weep, I’m hunkering down over coffee and eggs and bacon and pumpkin pancakes savoring each bite, and walking through a swirl of brilliant dancing leaves, listening to children preach and teach and nudge us to do what we should of our own volition, heaven touching earth in quiet unbidden moments, flashes of wonder intersecting our sodded wanderings. Wonder isn’t always packaged in ways we understand. If you have a couple minutes, listen to Natalie Merchant sing one of my favorite songs and tell the backstory of the songs genesis. It’s called Wonder.

Skimming Along Old Man River

This weekend the Sooner football team defeated Notre Dame and I skimmed along the mud flat shoals of the Red River in an air boat with four college buddies. We powered upstream through the shallow grassy sandbars pausing to shut down the engine to chat with our guide. We then headed downstream until we reached a giant dredger pulling sand from the river. We wore no seat belts, no life preservers, there wasn’t any safety railing…just the wind in our hair, or in my case on my head. We did, however, don ear protection against the roar of the aft engine. We’ve all operated mowers, chain saws, weed eaters and tractors, sans ear protection, yet felt strangely compelled to protect our hearing against the roar of the engine and fan blades. It might be too late, like applying sun screen at midnight, but we do what we can. Sometimes we protect less vital parts of our bodies, like ears, because it’s easy and convenient. But power is fickle and sometimes it reminds us of our tenuous hold on this earth.
Red River Cabin
My friend Kelly Kemp just turned fifty-five but he looks forty, like he could run his college event, the 800 meters, in two minutes. Living with Kelly in Rector House at Harding University, I had seen him often in running shorts, but on this day, I looked down at his thigh from my catbird perch on the air boat. There was a scar across the meat of the left thigh, running side to side about a half-inch wide, a toothy serration longing to tell a story.
Longhorn Kemp
Saturday afternoon we sat in the living room of the Kemp’s home south of Bonham, Texas, watching football games, east and west windows affording views of Texas grassland and Longhorns, the herd spiced by a lone donkey. I had forgotten about Kelly’s scar but the subject eventually arose through our meandering conversations. Kelly and his wife Lee Ann were out near the highway on their property and Kelly was chain sawing a tree and the blade struck an adjacent metal fence post which instantly kicked the saw down to his upper thigh. Once Kelly realized the cut had not just torn his jeans, but had sliced into the thigh, he grabbed both sides of the wound and told his wife, “I’m hurt bad, call 911.” They had no cell phone so Lee Ann ran to the highway and flagged down a passing car, occupied by two trained emergency responders. Upon reaching Kelly and coaxing him to take his hands off the wound, they began to care for him and when he released his hands, blood jetted high into the air. The EMT shouted, “Catch her!”, as Lee Ann went all woozy. Kelly stayed amazingly calm as the EMT took his pulse and told him, “Your pulse is 48!.” Kelly was life-flighted to Parkland Hospital in Dallas and they cared for him and he came home the next day. Just another inch and the saw would have severed the femoral artery in the inner thigh, and the story would have ended differently.
Bonham Texas 2013
Kelly, Jinx the dog, Mike Howell, Ralph Rowand, Brent Taylor, Alan Adams

It’s an illusion that time passes more quickly as we grow older. I can remember sitting in grade school watching the minute hand pass from 2:00 to 3:00, days when I was bored to tears. Today, a week passes more quickly than that glacial hour of waiting in my youth, a time when everything I could see was in front of me. At my age more of my life is behind me than ahead, in proportions I can never know or understand, since tomorrow isn’t any guarantee. As we said goodbye today, someone remarked that our last gathering was fifteen years ago…and if we wait another fifteen, Kelly would be seventy.

And so we went to worship service Sunday morning with Kelly and Lee Ann in Bonham and I was thinking thoughts about time and our place in it and how we grasp for these moments, ephemeral, holy moments, sometimes unexpected, moments that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. As we worshipped at the Bonham, Texas Church of Christ this morning, I noticed a lady sitting just ahead and slightly to my right in a break between the pews, in a wheelchair, perhaps ninety years old. I looked at her profile, at her jaw jutting prominently through her translucent vanilla skin, projecting through sagging cheeks like the rock of ages. The congregation sang Paradise Valley a capella and I watched her jaw move like a stone through time… “As I travel through life, with it’s trouble and strife, I’ve a glorious hope to give cheer on my way, soon my toil will be o’er, and I’ll rest on that shore, where the night will be turned into day.” I couldn’t hear her voice but she sang the words like she was seeing an old friend again after fifteen years. I caught myself missing the entirety of verse two watching her sing, and shamed, sang verse three loudly to make up for missing verse two.

She was sitting next to a lady directly in front of Ralph and me, her friend or perhaps her daughter, younger, seventy? Who can tell anymore? We had spoken to the younger woman before the service began and she had told me about growing up in Edmond, Oklahoma, and I asked her if she had gone to Edmond High School. She said, “Yes.” I told her there were three high schools in Edmond now.

During communion, the lady in the wheelchair received broken bread from her friend, making a cup of her hands, collecting it and tossing it into her mouth as best she could, with all the dignity and reverence she could muster. When the juice came, the younger woman took the cup and tilted it into the mouth of the older lady, like a momma bird feeding a baby sparrow. Her mouth was wide open, probably as wide as she could make it, and she swallowed the juice like a wandering nomad swallowing rain drops in a parched desert.

We are all collectors, dealers in memory. Keepers of time and space. It’s really all we have. Our money doesn’t travel well, our stuff gets put in dusty garages, our houses need painting, our cars break down, our clothes wind up at Goodwill. But moments in time, that’s the stuff we keep.

This weekend I talked to my good friends about work, children, wives and parents and we shared our memories of college when we were young and stupid. We told stories and white lies and we prayed and laughed a ton and we did nothing except be in each other’s company in the good graces and hands of Lee Ann who took care of us like we were kings. We ate delicious pie and cobbler, steak from the Kemp’s pastures, and fresh salsa and peaches from their cupboards. And for just a moment, time slowed down and we peered upstream and downstream along old man river, reflecting on the good stuff. Skimming along a river like modern-day Huck Finn’s, talking about our scars, looking at the stars and being thankful for our blessings.

Whenever I See Your Smiling Face

Jenna and Lauren express Duchenne smiles while framing my nephew David sporting a retro-eighties mouth-only male smile
Smile Jenna David Lauren

James Taylor did not sing Whenever I see Your Smiling Face about professional athletes…unless of course he was referring to Phil Mickelson or Magic Johnson. Has scowling become endemic to the upper echelon of sport? Lebron James reaction to his own great dunk makes one think someone borrowed his cell phone and returned it inside a jar of grape jelly. LeBron-James

I recently noted while watching my daughter Jenna play soccer that the tenor and tone of play, she’s a college senior, is markedly different from watching eight-year old’s play. They are much more serious than an eight-year old who is more likely to stop and pick a dandelion enroute to the goal, whereas college players feel the wrath of coaches and the not always gentle pressure of parental expectation.

I also spied a Bartlesville Bruin Football poster recently and my first reaction was the stoic nature of the mugs, but also a decidedly grumpy scowl adorning each adolescent face as if by peer caveat, an insincere attempt at machismo. Feigned male glowering seems incongruous with acne and downy facial hair. It also reminds me of my wife’s admonition against the visage of many successful athletes celebrating their success publicly with broken zygomaticus majors, stern, frowning, pouting, preening male scowling run amok. Karen’s admonition is pretty simple…”Smile”…she yells at the television, “act like you are happy you scored and quit acting mad!”

French physiologist G.B.A. Duchenne distinguished the facial sunrise of a true smile from a phony one. Phony smiles require only the zygomaticus major (muscle around the mouth), while a “real smile” involves both the lips and muscles ringing the eyes. In Duchenne’s words, one grin “obeys the will, but the second is only put into play by the sweet emotions of the soul.”

I love to watch folks who have chiseled Duchenne smiles, creased, laughing, happy skin surrounds their orbicularis oculi. They have learned through life and living and struggle and pain, through all that comedy that life can sometimes be, to smile with their eyes. smile older lady

When I think of people like that, it makes me go all James Taylor…
Whenever I see your smiling face
I have to smile myself
Because I love you (Yes, I do)
And when you give me that pretty little pout
It turns me inside out

Marianne LaFrance, a Yale psychology professor is an expert on the subject of smiles. Her book, “Why Smile? The Science Behind Facial Expression”, reveals differences between how and when women and men smile. It seems 20% of all smiles are Duchenne smiles, the smiling eyes variety. The balance of smiles are the mouth only smiles, the contrived ones, and women practice the art of intentional smiling much more often than men. Men are like those Easter Island Statues,

smile easter island

while women are professional grinners.

smile mona lisa

Katy Waldman recently wrote an article in Slate Magazine titled, The Tyranny of the Smile, and subtitled Why does everyone expect women to smile all the time? Katy quotes William Wordsworth in The Pastor, a reference to smiling being a learned behavior. “The babe not long accustomed to this breathing world, hath barely learned to shape a smile.” He’s right: More often than not, smiling is a learned behavior, “a socially contingent display.” If that babe is female, chances are she’ll catch on quickly, showering friends, acquaintances and strangers in that luminous inverted horseshoe.

Not sure what to make of all this? Perhaps women understand that it’s up to them to do the heavy lifting, the emotional labor of stitching together the social fabric of our workplaces, our families, our relationships. And men…we don’t really give a rip do we? As long as dinner is on the table and there is money in the bank, give me a reason to smile.
I’m just kidding…I think. 🙂