Road House Rules: The Lost Art of Being Nice

Like my father before me, I’m a fairly simple and uncomplicated man. I find more wisdom in films than books; more poetry in country music than anthologies. My favorite poet is Robert Frost, by way of The Outsiders’ Pony Boy Curtis.

It’s a poem about the fleeting beauty of innocence:

Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day,
Nothing gold can stay.

And my father’s favorite poet was Patrick Swayze, by way of Road House’s Dalton.

“I want you to be nice.
Until it’s time to not be nice.”

In the greaser mode of the aforementioned Pony Boy, my father was born with a heart that was two sizes too [big]. While his slow-strut and southern-like drawl suggested a countrified upbringing, he was a northeastern greaser right down to his plain-white-T and “dungarees”. The least political man I ever knew, dad had a healthy respect for politics but a disdain for political rhetoric. “Never discuss politics and religion” were the words he preached; “be nice” were the words by which he lived.

Long before Patrick Swayze made it noble to not “put Baby in the corner” and cool to “be nice”, my father had already chosen “nice” as his preferred vice. That is why I listened intently when he prophesied that social media would be “the ruination of civilization.” For my dad, social media broke all the rules. Most notably, it was far too easy to not be nice when it came to the polarizing topics that he vowed never to discuss: religion and politics.

Before my father passed away at 76 years young at heart, he was reminded daily that Elton John had erred. In dad’s eyes, “nice” (not “sorry”) seemed to be the hardest word. And I’m sorry to say dad, it’s getting harder every day. Today, nice may very well be the least appreciated 4-letter word in the English language. It lacks the hard-consonant punch of F*CK; the satisfaction of a solid SH*T; or the sexually charged sting of C*CK or C*NT. Nice isn’t sexy, and it sure as shit ain’t easy.

But to dad, nice was effortless. I guess that’s why he couldn’t quite grasp why nice was so hard for so many others. At times, it infuriated him…

  • Dad’s reaction to the unfriendly woman at the checkout counter: “Ooooh…would it hurt that dipshit to say thank you???”
  • Dad to the recipient of his kind traffic gesture:
    “Ooooh….ain’t you gonna thank me, you tick-turd???”

Determined to be one of Frost’s few outliers, dad stayed as gold as the pack of Winston Lights that used to peek from his shirt pockets. He entered every room with a smile,  and he never exited a room that wasn’t filled with laughter. In short, he always led with nice. Nice was his brand. And in the words of his cowboy hero, it was a brand that stuck.

If dad’s cigarette vice ultimately played a role in his death, then nice was the vice that fueled his 76 years of happiness. There may even be some science to back-up this claim. According to Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., “When we help others and do kind acts, it causes our brain to release endorphins, the chemical that gives us feelings of fervor and high spirits — similar to a runner’s high.” Keep in mind, my dad wouldn’t know the difference between an endorphin and a Dolph Lundgren. So I doubt he clung to nice for its health benefits like a vegan pounces on tofu. Nice just made him feel really good. So good, in fact, that he’d routinely peek through a restaurant window just to see the waiter’s joyful reaction to his overly generous tip.

“Ooooh…he didn’t even smile! That waiter’s an ass-hole!”
[See, dad also knew when it was time to not be nice. ]  

Some can argue that dad’s perpetual happiness was fueled by caffeine, nicotine, and yellow Marshmallow Peeps. I disagree! Dad’s greatest buzz came from his vice for being nice. Curious to know what dad looked like when it was time to not be nice?

If you dared to cross my father or a member of his family, he’d go OG Buford Pusser on your ass. But I digress…

My point is that dad understood both parts of Dalton’s rule. I fear that we, as a society, have forgotten the first part: Being nice starts with listening to one another. And we jump straight to the second part: Not being nice is so easy from behind the safety glass of our mobile devices. What happened? Did the endorphin response to being nice get trumped by the quick fix of a cheap laugh (eg, mean tweets) or an even cheaper like (my political views rule, your’s drool)? Or, like the gold in Pony Boy’s favorite poem, has our nation lost its collective innocence due to the endless onslaught of very real and troubling news that I only wish we could “fake” away? Sorry dad, I have no answers.

Around the time of my 45th birthday, my normally optimistic tone changed to bitterness during a phone call with my brother. Overworked and feeling undervalued,  I complained to my brother about my job. I complained about my clients. I called them every 4-letter word in the book and vowed to stop working so hard for people who didn’t appreciate me. “Ooooh…would it hurt that dipshit to say thank you???” I felt like a pushover, and I sounded like my father. Why was it so hard for my clients to be nice? And why should I bother being nice anymore?

Shortly after the call, in a moment of perfect clarity, my brother sent me a text that I’ll never forget:

“Stay gold Pony Boy.”

That text, and the conversation that inspired it, made me think about my father. It reminded me of his brand; the only 4-letter word by which he chose to live, and the brand that still “sticks” to me and my siblings. And I decided to write this post when I recalled a speech that my dad gave while accepting an award to honor his many years as a little league baseball coach. Today, the closing line from his speech reads more like his epitaph:

“And when I walk down the street, I hope a former player of mine
will look and say ‘there goes Bill Smith–he was a really nice guy’.”

He really was. And may we all remind ourselves of my dad’s speech; the poetry of Robert Frost; the golden innocence of Pony Boy Curtis; and both parts of Dalton’s Road House rules.

Let’s try to make “nice” the brand that sticks.

Stay gold my friends!

 

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The ’80s: Stranger Things from a Simpler Time

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You’re only young once. But if you’re lucky, you’ll be young-at-heart forever. 

My father possesses this rare gift. At the age of 76, he’s still the same dreamer with the Elvis Presley comb-over and a sweet tooth for Hollywood endings.

Lucky for me, all signs indicate that dad’s youthful heart defect hasn’t skipped a generational beat. I don’t just reminisce about those “I want my MTV” wonder years. I’m not merely a nostalgic who watches Freaks and Geeks and The Goldbergs (both great shows) or quotes John Bender like a “neo maxi zoom dweebie.” I go further than that.

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  • I’ll disappear into the rabbit hole of YouTube’s memory lane for hours, only to return in Marty McFly’s DeLorean.
  • I’ve ordered 1980’s Sears Wish Books on eBay just to remember what I put on my Santa list.
  • I’ve Googled so many 1980’s TV commercials that I ask myself classic rhetorical questions like “Where’s The Beef?” and try in vein to answer them: “The HAMBURGLAR???”

I’m not your Magic Garden-variety nostalgic who simply remembers the ’80s, I inhale them. I let the ’80s seep so deeply into my pores that I need Clearasil to fix the zits.

Understandably, my significant other thinks I may have a problem. To my wife, being young at heart also means that I’m lost in time…I’ve never grown up…and I still haven’t found what U2’s looking for. I remind my significantly more mature other that I use the fond memories of yesterday as my pop-culture-infused energy source. In today’s youthful terms, they’re like power-ups that help keep me optimistic about the future. When I revisit pop-culture from the ’80s, I also remember time spent with my family, my neighborhood friends, a home that I couldn’t wait to come home to, and a president who made me feel safe…even during difficult times.

By difficult times, I mean like this one time in 1982:
I came home from school like every other day. I changed into my sweat pants, remembering to 
carefully cuff them just below the knees. I pulled my Wigwam tube socks just below my balls. I laced up my Jaclars and raced downstairs to find the end of the world as we know it (5 years before REM did).  

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Seeing this TIME Magazine cover story was like experiencing my own private “The Day After”. The mental fallout was so severe that I’d Poltergeist myself into our Zenith at the mere mention of the words NUCLEAR WAR.   

Shortly after TIME Magazine foreshadowed why I’d one day pop Xanax like Tic Tacs, my father introduced us to a SONY Betamax. He also gave me my very own Video Express card. As an escape from nuclear hysteria, that card quickly pimped me into a rental whore. Late at night, when dad was watching the news downstairs, I’d play the movies extra loud upstairs. This way I’d drown out any news of the nuclear arms race and the inevitable extinction of Morris Plains, NJ. No joke, when I wasn’t navigating the aisles of Video Express, I was mapping out the quickest Jaclar route from Sussex Avenue School to my home on 14 Meslar Road. You know, in the event of global thermonuclear war.

But that was life in the ’80s. I think we all had active imaginations that fueled our childhood anxieties. We also knew our parents had a lot on their cholesterol-filled plates, so we couldn’t run to them every time something went bump in the night. I now realize, of course, that we were the last of a great generation of kids who solved their own problems. We were dreamers who looked up to the stars, not down at our cellphones. We were the first generation to have VCRs and video games; the first generation to be raised on Steven Spielberg and Stephen King; and the last generation whose parents didn’t have to worry if we strayed too far from the yard.

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The 80’s were difficult times, sure, but they were simpler times. As kids, we were able to exempt ourselves from the problems of the adult world by simply disappearing until dinnertime. After dinnertime, I disappeared into the movies that captured the spirit of that time. Classic ’80s movies empowered us and gave legitimacy to our far-flung fantasies. The ones where ordinary, lower-middle-class kids could do extraordinary things.

’80s movies made us believe that:

6 kids, a treasure map, and a pirate ship loaded with booty can save the Goondocks.
(SPOILER ALERT: Their parents didn’t even have to schedule the play date).
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With the help of a boy and his flying dirt bike, an alien voiced by Debra Winger can phone home without an Apple or Samsung device.

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Boy who sweeps leg no match for karate kid who wax on and whacks off (sorry).

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8 kids called the Wolverines can save their high school from a Russian invasion and Charlie Sheen.

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When my young heart reminisces about the “good ol’ days”, I’m actually just tapping into the spirit of that simpler time. Take this election season for example. So disheartened by both major-party candidates, I desperately needed to refuel my pessimistic 2016 engine with 1.21 gigawatts of Reagan-era optimism. So on the advice of a friend, I turned my attention to a Demogorgon monster in an upside down world. No, this Demogorgon is not one of the monsters running for president. And the upside down world isn’t the DNC, the RNC, or Run-DMC. It’s the latest binge-worthy sensation from Netflix called Stranger Things. A show that my aforementioned friend described this way:

“It feels like a show written by Stephen King, directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring
the
cast of the Goonies. Oh, and Winona Ryder is still kinda hot “

No further selling was required. I finished the sometimes scary, always spectacular 8-episode series in 2 days. In bed suffering from a brutal ulcerative colitis flare, Stranger Things proved to be a better antidote than any ass enema. It had me shrieking in fear, blubbering with tears, and goose-bumping like a 12-year-old all over again. In addition to a tremendous cast of kids, it features familiar ’80s faces like Winona “Heathers” Ryder and Matthew “Vision Quest” Modine. The nods to the ’80s classics are endless. The chills feel like they’re courtesy of Stephen King and John Carpenter; the thrills are the work of Spielberg; and the three sides of the teenage love triangle are shaped by the John Hughes classics. But it’s almost an insult to call Stranger Things an homage to ’80s movies. It doesn’t just reference ’80s movies and look like an ’80s movie. It feels like an ’80s movie too. With each new episode, I was reminded how I felt the first time I watched all those kids-can-do classics. Lost innocence found…some 30 years later.

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For me, the Duffer Brother’s “Stranger Things” felt like a time portal trip through the Poltergeist TV. After 8 tightly-packaged, swiftly-paced episodes, I triumphantly screamed: “They’re baaaack” in reference to the ’80s. And this child of the ’80s is waiting anxiously to learn if “Stranger Things” will be baaaack for a season 2.

Stranger Things is great entertainment. Escapism at its best. A reminder of a simpler time before far-flung fantasies gave way to far-too-real realities. Today, our worst fears aren’t dreamed up after reading a doomsday scenario in TIME Magazine. They’re not played-out on Dungeons & Dragons game boards in the tree houses and basements of suburbia. Today’s worst fears actually come to life. We watch them in real-time. They’re devoured on social media, recycled on the nightly news, and then spun ever-so-delicately to fit his and her own political point of view.

For a brief 8 episodes, however, Stranger Things offered a welcome respite to the hate-filled campaign coverage that proves we’re living in strange times with the risk of stranger (and scarier) things to come. (Where’s the Xanax?)

So far I’ve been steadfast in my belief that neither of our current major-party candidates is worthy of my vote.

So the next time someone asks me:
“But if you had to vote for one candidate…right here…right now…who would it be?”

My answer will be:
“I’ll endorse Stranger Things right here. And I’ll vote for a season 2. Right now!” 

Like my father, I proudly remain young at heart…and apolitical to the core.

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