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!