Before the election — I think this is going to be my new way to mark time — I declared to a friend, “I’m tired of being nice, screw that. I’m not going to be mean, but I’m not going out of my way to be nice. I’m done.” It was in the context of having spent my life being the “nice” person for the worst possible reason: to get people’s approval. Nothing soothes the old insecurities like the slightly superior stance of, “Everyone likes me better than you because I’m nicer and you’re a nasty piece of work.” Plus, being nice means you can never blame me for anything. Of course, there is a price to be paid; dysfunctional, manipulative people eat nice people for breakfast, and before you know it you’re waiting in the getaway car while said manipulator is shoplifting for fun. The other price is that being nice is tiring, and of course, complete bullshit.
And then my perimenopause came along, and Anger swaggered in and kicked Nice to the curb and dumped a drink on her head. At first I thought it was a common symptom of perimenopause, but when I started to talk to my peri friends, I began to get a certain arched eyebrow look when I described how I wanted to pummel a woman for wearing a coat with an odd graphic design. Doesn’t everyone? They’d nod with sympathy and a splash of alarm and confess only to moodiness. Hmmmmm. Now let’s see, a lifetime of being “nice,” and my peri takes a wrong turn onto a rickety wooden bridge across a canyon and catches on fire. While it might take a literature professor to make sense of that whacky metaphor, it doesn’t take a postdoc in clinical psychology to figure out the anger part. It’s that annoying, yet necessary human tendency to make sure we never miss a developmental stage. If you were a teen having to take on adult responsibilities and you haven’t worked that out, your brain will encourage you to run around during midlife acting like a clubbing and drinking teenager. I admit there’s no hard data on this, but trust me, there’s no escaping. Sooner or later skipped stages come back to bite you in the ass.
At first the anger freaked me out because it was so random and seemed to come out of nowhere. Ha ha ha, that’s a good one, isn’t it? “Nowhere,” aka a lifetime of working too hard to be nice. Slowly I learned to notice it, let it be, and not let it get me booked for assault with a deadly coat. As my self-confidence took root, though, I felt something else: a profound sense of relief as I realized I didn’t need to be nice. I was cool just being me. Even better, I didn’t give a flip if people liked me or not.
And that’s how I came to tell my friend I was done with being nice. It felt good, it felt right. Except for my friends who are grandfathered in, if you want to gain access to my good graces, you’re going to have to earn it.
Then the election happened.
After the shock, fear, and desire to knock over a liquor store peaked and ebbed, I was left with the hard truth. Dammit, I have to be nice again. The angry haters are having a field day, and I want no part of that. Plus, I have a kid, so I have to be a good role model — it’s a real drag sometimes. But I slowly realized I don’t need to be nice, which would be useless anyway. What I need to be is kind.
Definitions: Nice = pleasant, agreeable, satisfactory . What could be more useless and annoying? Kind = having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature. As the guard at Emerald City of Oz said, “That’s a horse of a different color!”
I’m done being pleasant and agreeable. Being generous and considerate is where it’s at for me now. So as the news of Trump’s transition team threatened to overwhelm me because I started to add up all the protests I was going to have to attend, I realized the true antidote was to be kind, right now. Rather than go home from work in my usual state of taking refuge in the anonymous urban environment and not notice anything or anyone, I could be kind. As it often seems to do for me, the universe gave me three encounters to practice.
The first was at Whole Foods. I put my package of stroopwaffles on the counter, divine thin waffle wafers hugging a filling of thin cinnamon caramel. The cashier was a woman of color, and she playfully put them behind her back, and said, “Ooooh these are so good! I’m keeping them for myself!” Usually, I just smile and nod, nicely, but it was much better this time to laugh and say sincerely, “I know, they are so good!” And I prevented myself from adding, they are even better warm from a street vendor in Amsterdam — she probably already knew that.
I left the store, crossed the street, and was approached by a slightly disheveled man of color carrying a small bag of possessions. He started talking in a soft voice, and I caught a few phrases, “new to the neighborhood” and “having a hard time.” Usually I walk by with a quick, “Sorry,” as I continue on my way. But I stopped, looked at him, and since he hadn’t yet articulated what he wanted, I asked, “Do you need help?”
“I need to eat!” I said “OK,” and handed him the first bill in my wallet, a $5. He thanked me and pulled me in for a hug. I believe I hugged him harder than he hugged me. We pulled away, and then we pressed our heads together.
He said, “God bless you. If you need anything, I can help you.” Ah, but you already have, mister.
I got off the train and as I was walking to my car, a brown-skinned boy, maybe 10 or 11 called to me, “Do you have the time?”
“It’s almost six,” I said, and then I remembered how my son and the younguns prefer the exact digital time, so I corrected myself. “It’s 5:55.”
“Good!” he said, “I have to be home by 6!”
“Can you make it?”
“Yes!” he said as he ran off in the direction of his house. And I stood and watched him and appreciated in that moment that he wasn’t afraid to ask a stranger for the time, nor was he afraid to make his way home in the dark.
So far, so good. only 1,489 days to go.