I’m a generally happy person. I smile a lot. I like to laugh.
Apparently, no one told my face.
I’m not exactly sure when this began. There are pictures of me as a young boy grinning like an idiot. And then there are pictures of me as a teenager — not. But then, teenagers aren’t supposed to smile. After all, they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. But, even after that, I can’t find pictures of me actually smiling.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been funny. I’ve always enjoyed making other people laugh. Some of my earliest memories are me saying or doing things at a family gathering to get laughs. And I have to assume, I laughed along with them.
When I was much younger, my wife and I frequented comedy clubs with another couple. We always got there early so I could sit in front. I wanted to watch the comedians without the distraction of people in front of me, and I didn’t mind the prospect of being heckled.
But night after night, I noticed the person on stage looking around for someone to engage with. Their eyes met mine for a fleeting second and then they moved on to the next victim. It made me curious, until one night, a guy on stage looked at me and said, “Check out this guy, ‘make me laugh, asshole’.” That’s when I mentally checked my body language. Arms crossed, and no smile at all. Inside I was laughing my ass off, but my face, not so much. On subsequent nights, I made a point of forcing my laughter out loud, but it seemed phony.
After that were years of family photographs. Just us as a couple or huge gatherings of an extended family. Everybody smiling. Well, almost everyone. But it was only a few times a year, so I never gave it much thought.
Digital photography changed that. Now, you’re getting your picture taken every time you look up. Eating lunch. Walking down the street. And yes, the family snaps at vacation spots. Maybe as I got older, I became more self-aware, so I decided this was an easy problem to fix. All I had to do was smile. How hard can that be?
Pretty damned hard, it seems. Over the past few years, I have actually given it thought and planned on smiling for family photos. We gather around, the photographer says something clever like, “say cheese!” And I break out into a big smile. I can feel it. In my eyes. In my mouth. I’m smiling, dammit.
With digital, you get immediate results, so I look at the image on the person’s phone or camera and I’m confused. The guy that looks like me in the picture isn’t smiling. He looks constipated. I guess that’s me smiling.
It’s taken a lifetime to finally come to this realization. A lifetime of passed opportunities. Opportunities to smile. Like I said, I’m generally very happy. But I guess no one else knows that. In the last few years, as I’ve met a whole new group of friends, I’ve heard several people refer to me as grumpy.
How can you say that?
I guess they looked at my face. That was their first clue.
I’ve even gone so far as studying other people’s faces. The crinkles at the edge of their eyes. The lines around the corners of their mouths. Laugh lines, they call them.
I don’t have those.
What happened, and when did it happen? I wish I knew. But I guess it doesn’t matter when it happened so much as what can I do about it. I put on this big toothy grin when I greet neighbors on the street. It doesn’t feel fake since I’ve always been smiling on the inside. But it feels strange. I’m using muscles I haven’t used in a very long time.
Hopefully, like anything else, all it takes is practice. A lot of practice. I just need to develop muscle memory. Muscles that need training all over again. I hope I don’t get some sort of repetitive strain injury. Carpal tunnel of the face. What’s wrong with him? Oh, he pulled a muscle trying to smile.
But that’s okay. No pain, no gain, right? It’s just something I have to keep working on. Eventually, it will come as naturally as it once did all those years ago. Soon, people will look at a family or group photo I am a part of, and someone will say, “Who’s that jackass grinning like an idiot?”
That’s me, smiling.