Saturday, November 8, 2008

Not So Nice

A good friend of mine told me a story tonight about Oprah and her boyfriend Steadman. I guess Oprah was waxing on something and at some point said, "I mean, I'm a nice person and..." and Steadmen evidently interrupted and said, "You know what? You are blank, blank, and blank [all good things and qualities to be proud of] but you're not nice." And Oprah had one of her "Aha!" moments and realized it was so.

I know several truly nice people, those who don't just do good deeds and are thoughtful and cheerful but who, rather, exude a goodness that is inherent. They're sweet. They might have good senses of humor or sharp wits; they might be sarcastic or reclusive or artistic or not, but they exude a goodness that seems inherent and unrelated to the other qualities.

I think I've always known about myself that I'm not nice, but it was only tonight that it was put into words. And it's sort of the base of an inner conflict that I've had for years as well. It's the one about trying to be good, to be perfect, to be pleasing and liked and, well, you know the rest. When those things aren't inherent, you can only strive to be them and most of the time I try and think I succeed but often I just plain don't. And that gets me to whether I used to be nice but have slowly but surely hardened over the years into not-so-nice, not-so-patient, etc.

And then I think if niceness is inherent and I used to be sweet, could I find that part of myself again? Or not, because it would be so entirely self-conscious. But all of that is just plain navel-gazing, right?

This past week, despite the almost euphoric heights of the Obama election, I was brought right smack into my not-niceness -- the several conflicted encounters on Facebook, the run-ins with the turbo-moms, a real spat with a close friend. I felt like I was on a runaway train, aware that I was gathering speed but scrambling to stop. My final blow was a quick reply to an email requesting yet another activity that I had to "volunteer" for -- this time engaging seven and eight year old Cub Scouts to write letters and gather what seemed to be millions of items for care packages for the troops in Iraq! I practically screamed a response when I got this request: NO MORE, NOT NOW, I JUST CAN'T DO IT. I'M SORRY FOR THE TROOPS BUT I JUST CAN'T DO IT.

You could have heard a pin drop in cyberland when I sent this email out to my fellow den leaders, all men. And then came their responses -- all about scouting and how wonderful it is for their boys and how wonderful the troops are, etc. etc. I, the sole woman, was a pariah -- unpatriotic, stingy, couldn't even muster up energy to instill good American values in the boys who had been entrusted to her. (And no one said that, but ever full of conflict between the nice and the not-so-nice, I imagined it).

Suffice it to say that I came to my senses and found my inner nice, and my little den of boys will be writing letters to the brave boys of Iraq next week. But you know what made me relent? My Swiss husband said, "I mean, those guys volunteered to be there, right? Why the hell do you have to send them care packages?" I made a sort of lame attempt to be patriotic and then dissolved into laughter at his not-niceness.

So, I'm searching for my old sweet self.


  1. Girl, who needs nice? I got lotsa people IN MY FAMILY who believe really stupid & venal things, who are not nice, but sure know how to act nice. I'm not exactly sure what "nice" means to me, although it doesn't mean what a Yankee told me it mean to her--that if you're nice, you're not so smart (esp. if you have a Southern accent). What my mother thinks it means is women should be accommdating because we're here to reflect men to twice their height, so they'll support us. She thinks women should be decorative, as attractive as humanly and technologically possible, and especially thin--we shouldn't tread so heavily on this earth because we don't want a man to think we're hard to support.

    The most feminist moment I ever had was a highly unlikely one. I was in a black Baptist church trying to hear something real, some real music, some real suffering, and a woman who believed that God was a Man, His Son was a Man, & even the Holy Spirit had a big pee pee in the sky stood up and said that the first person Christ revealed himself to was a woman, and if you were a woman, you should go TELL it! The way she said it, with such power--no one ever told her that she should tread lightly on the earth--electrfied me. Even though she believed things I didn't about Our Lord, she had such personal power and such conviction. Here before me was a strong woman.

    What you are, Eliabeth, is passionate. You're alive, you're struggling. Dude, that's way f'ing greater than nice!

  2. I was appalled by the almost immediate response you got to your note about feeling like you were stretched a bit too thin to contribute to the last, rather extensive Scouting request. You very accurately articulated my feelings with your response, and I am actually a bit put off buy the huge number of emails and the seemingly dictatorial approach to the
    volunteer process. The man means well, is doing his best and is making a significant contribution, but his big heart and willingness to contribute are often overshadowed by the methods by which he communicates. Your responses are a great antidote to the sometimes overly ambitious "orders" we receive as volunteers.

  3. Thanks for the support, angelpie and Chris. I'm feeling humbled today by a visit to church, a beautiful windy, Los Angeles sky and Sophie finishing up a great week!

  4. Why do I suspect that these patriotic, giving men are so enthusiastic because their nice, accommodating wives will run around checking the items off the list for the care packages?

  5. I understand your ambivalence about "nice". I've never really been quite sure what it means and I imagine that if asked to describe me, "nice" probably isn't among the adjectives those who know me best would use. But I think I'm glad. It's a mediocre word. I think I'd rather remain someone who tries her best and means well, even though she's sometimes misunderstood.

    My not-niceness is probably also reflected in my reaction to your husband's comment. It was funny -- and true. Hey, the concept of the care package was a great idea back in the days when the troops were eating C-Rations and had none of the comforts of home. I was in the military and I love and respect these men and women as much as the next person -- but besides being able to come home with their lives, limbs and souls intact -- I'm pretty sure they're not wanting for anything material. I imagine the letters are nice for them too.

    The emotion surrounding the election and my apparent inability to shut it all down have led me to some serious soul searching and I decided that with the exception of my work -- which I can't ignore -- I'm not doing anything else that requires me to think (which seems to lead to over thinking and obsessive thinking and somehow, borderline depression and generalized anxiety). I've unsubscribed to all the news and political blogs in my Google Reader and I'll start posting again and writing again when I've gotten back to normal - whatever that is. I'll read the new posts that sustain me (like yours) when I get on line once or twice a day.

    Passionate, compassionate, thinking, fair -- give me all of them over nice any day.

    Take time away from everybody who stirs up unpleasant feelings if you can. It will do you good.

  6. At the risk of parroting Steadman--my darling, you are whip smart, passionate, compassionate, funny as hell, beautiful, a fantastic writer and quite a baker, but you are not "nice." If you ever start being "nice" I'm going to come up there and kick your ass. And tell those Scoutmasters I said "Stick it."

  7. well, you are nice to ME...and that is all that I care about! (you brought me lunch, dinner, and took my kids for a few hours all in one week!!!! That, my friend, is the doings of someone who is NICE)

    I happen to like nice. I like nice people. I like my kids to be nice. I like to be nice. Nice makes me feel good. And I don't think nice is over rated.


    No one can be nice all of the time. THAT is what is over rated. People who are ALWAYS nice are either lying, or just a little spooky, don't ya think? We need to have our not nice moments to better appreciate the nice ones.

    And as a mom of a cub scout preparing one of those care packages...I think it is nice. He is excited to do it. And he is learning to do something nice for others. How could that be bad? It is not about the contents in the box, so much as the thought behind it.

    (OK, I just told my children to shut up while trying to type this... nice...)

  8. laura, I get why it's good for your son but I'm also wondering HOW we instill values in our children, and it's sort of a faux nice for me to do this one particular project -- mainly because in some implicit way it's supporting a war built on lies and betrayals. It's a mixed message for MY SONS and it's hard for me to do. Add that to the ever-growing list of obligations that the children have and, well, I just about combust.

  9. I think that many people just don't understand the time constraints of mothers who have disabled children. You seem plenty nice enough to me.

  10. Well, I never meant for this post to elicit so much support for either my not-niceness AND my niceness, but it's certainly nice. Thanks to all who have commented!



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