My wife has a tell. If she’s about to lose her cool, you know it. The kids know it. I definitely know it.
“Uh-oh,” we whisper in chilled tones. “Cheekbones…”
That clenching of the jaw is the signal to abandon all hope. Whatever the argument was, you have lost. Those cheekbones are domestic kryptonite. “Come on, let’s see that beautiful smile!” is a thing you never want to say when you see those cheekbones.
I never thought I had a tell. I’m more of a closed book—a book your grandmother gave you for Christmas when you were 14 (Thrilling Adventures in Christian Hygiene), a book that you just can’t bear to throw away, mainly because it’s just the right thickness to keep the table from wobbling. I’m that kind of book.
But these days, I feel like I’m nothing but tell. The older I get, the less able I am to disguise my expression. I’ve completely lost my poker face.
I’ve been in countless meetings over the past months dealing with all the things we have had to deal with in 2020, and most of the time I simply sit quietly and listen, because someone has to. But there have been a couple of instances when the speaker has paused to say, “Ross, you look like you disagree…”
I can’t tell you exactly what my face looks like in those moments. I expect it is somewhere between a frown and gas retention. The problem is my disagreement has become clear, and now I actually have to commit to a position, which was what I was trying to avoid by sitting quietly in the first place; there is a 75 to 92 percent chance that my position is imbecilic.
I recently participated in an online workshop on how to run an online workshop. (I wonder if the online workshop leader took an online workshop on how to run an online workshop on how to run an online workshop.) When I signed in for the first time on Zoom, the leader said, “Hello, Ross. You look confused.”
“That’s just how I look,” I replied.
Was I confused at that particular moment? It’s 2020, so chances are, yes. But my point is I had no intentions of displaying confusion to people to whom I was hoping to give the kind of impression that says, “You know, that Ross guy, I bet he could workshop a mean workshop on workshops…” Instead, I was the “has he stumbled onto the wrong Zoom?” guy.
(As an aside, have we ever been so conscious of our faces as we have these past eight months? Whether it’s how our ears stick out when we put on those masks or staring at yourself in Zoom calls but frustratingly never able to look yourself in the eye—and is that really what my hair looks like?—we have spent a lot of time with our face, and it is not pretty.)
I know that for the past decade my face has slowly and irrevocably been losing its structural integrity. I first noticed this when my eyelids started getting eyelids. My beard has been nothing but a sad attempt to buttress sagging jowls. Now it seems like my face muscles have thrown in the towel. They no longer have the capacity to resist the slightest emotion.
I can feel my perma-frown furrowing as people speak, my mouth pursing as they go on about something boring in their lives, my eyes glaring because they won’t stop talking long enough for me to say my much more important thing, namely that no one has ever, ever said the sentence, “Mmmm, that was the best banana I’ve ever eaten.”
It’s not just expressions. I notice my face doing its own thing at other times as well. When I pull the lid off a tin of cat food, for instance, I’ve started doing this sort of grimace that is part effort, part disgust and part fear I’m going to fling cat food juice in my face. I can’t help it.
Perhaps my face is just getting ahead of the rest of me. After a lifetime of being emotionally guarded and keeping that book closed (101 Stories About Yarn), maybe my brain is preparing me for the future. One of the few benefits of aging is that you feel the freedom to no longer give a hoot what other people think. My face is just getting ready to say whatever is on my mind.
Except to my wife, of course; I don’t want to see those cheekbones.