Smiling Faces

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Years ago when I lived in L.A., an Iranian-born friend of mine introduced me to the local Persian market. After countless lunches and dinners at her home, as well as my marriage  into an Iraqi-American family, I had developed an affinity for Middle Eastern cuisine and wanted to try my hand at cooking it.

My friend had warned me that the shopping experience would not be what I was used to in American culture. She was right. The market was small and cramped, and women were bulldozing their way through narrow aisles with grim determination. The people who worked there were brusque. But what struck me more than anything was that no one smiled.

My husband explained to me that in Middle Eastern culture, people who smile all the time are considered fools. There are expressions in his language that basically translate into “grinning idiot.” Someone smiling in public for no reason is not to be trusted. This same cultural belief, I recently learned, is true in Russia. An Invisibilia podcast described the difficulty in opening Russia’s first McDonald’s and training Russian workers to smile. In Russian culture, one only smiles at one’s friends and family members, not strangers.

Here in America, smiling is ubiquitous. When I am out in public and make eye contact with a person, I usually smile, and they usually smile back. Friendly, smiling service personnel are the expectation here. And smiling can have many positive effects. One day during my teaching years, I stood outside my classroom door between class periods and noticed that every kid I saw was smiling. Even students I knew to be on the shy or surly side had a bright smile for me. Was something in my teeth? I wondered. Did I have a scrap of toilet paper dangling from the hem of my dress? As the bell rang, I realized that the students were all smiling for one reason: I was smiling at them.

Smiles can be contagious and make others feel welcome. The men and women who worked at the first Russian McDonald’s discovered that the Russian people started flocking to the restaurant, not so much for the food, but for the warmth and friendliness they found there. Studies have even shown that if you force yourself to smile, you will start feeling happier inside.

There can be downsides to all this smiling, of course. A perusal of one’s Facebook feed, for instance, can make a person feel as if the whole world is happy except for them. It can be challenging and exhausting at times to “put on a happy face.” And in the world of customer service, the expectation of smiling subservience can have a dark side. As explained in Invisibilia, in Russia, servers at restaurants were traditionally unfriendly and not particularly inclined to make customers happy. They had access to the food the customer wanted, and therefore they had the upper hand. The balance of power in American culture definitely lies with the customer, who in our tradition is “always right.” This can lead customers to be inconsiderate and even downright abusive at times with the expectation that the server is at their beck and call.

Smiling and friendliness can also conceal bad intentions. As the Temptations sang, “Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes, they don’t tell the truth.” I always think of glad-handing politicians when I hear that song. Lately the smiles of Paul Ryan and others on Capitol Hill have struck me as Cheshire-cat-like as they dismantle health care for the masses and hand out juicy tax breaks to the rich.

Yet I prefer to live in a culture where smiling is common. It can brighten someone’s day and make others around us just a little bit happier. Overall, I’d say that’s a good thing. As pop artist Sia sings, in America, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”

 

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Too Much to Dream

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(The Dream, Salvador Dali)

The other night, my husband was shouting in his sleep. He sounded like a character in an action thriller. When I woke him up to calm him, he said that he’d had a nightmare, one of the few he’s ever had in his life. Throughout our marriage, my husband has insisted that he doesn’t dream, and I have insisted that everyone dreams, but he may not remember his.

Dreams are freaky glimpses into the unconscious. Over the years I’ve had scary dreams, recurring dreams, and the occasional erotic dream. In many of my dreams I have to climb or traverse a great height. Sometimes I am in an unbelievably high roller coaster that terrifies me. I also often dream about being lost or losing something I need.

It’s interesting to try to interpret what my dreams mean. For example, the online “Dream Bible” explains my fear of heights in dreams as a fear of success. In truth, though, I am just afraid of heights, so dreaming of them is probably just a reflection of that anxiety. Indeed, psychologist Patrick McNamara, PhD., states that there is no validity to most dream interpretation. In Psychology Today, McNamara claims that so-called dream interpretation is usually very subjective. He does, however, believe that one day psychology will be able to crack the codes of our dreams and find the meaning therein. (“The Folly of Dream Interpretation,” July 29, 2013)

Why we dream is also something of a mystery. There are theories that dreams are a way of restoring the mind to balance, an indication of stress or anxiety, a way of spurring creativity, or even markers for some neuro-degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and dementia.

The other thing that fascinates me about dreams is how normal they seem while I’m in them but incoherent when I remember them upon waking. As an example, last night I had the following dream: I was in a big city and stopped at a Walgreen’s to buy underwear for my daughter. While I was there, a man offered to sell me silver dollars, which I have actually been planning to get from the bank for an Easter egg hunt. There was no underwear in my kid’s size, so I left to find another Walgreen’s. Somehow I was transported to Minnesota, where my sisters live, and I thought I was there for my niece’s wedding, but it turned out she was actually already married and pregnant. She got angry when I said we were going to “par-tay” because she couldn’t drink. Next thing I knew I was on the sidewalk, and my husband was walking toward me with a mouth full of teeth that had fallen out. I was alarmed and then even more so as I noticed that I too was losing a few teeth. (The Dream Bible would say this indicates anxiety about getting old. No kidding!) We decided to head to the hospital, but my husband wouldn’t listen to me about which direction to take. We drove past an old nightclub called Limelight and found ourselves in a pitch dark neighborhood. Then we came upon some glamorous and glitzy part of the city I had never seen. I awoke before we ever reached our destination, which is a recurring aspect of my dreams.

Dreams remain a fascinating mystery to me. But I am convinced that they are an indispensable safety valve for the brain. When I was in college, I would pull all-nighters to cram for a test or write a paper. On those occasions, as I would finally allow my body to rest, I would start to have waking dreams, sort of hallucinations as my overtaxed brain slipped into sleep.

As for my husband, he remains convinced that he doesn’t usually dream, and that belief will probably remain until the next time I awaken him for shouting in his sleep, “I’m gonna blow your f#*!ing head off!”