No one is smiling right. It’s hard to get a smile wrong. We thought we knew how to smile, but my wife is saying we do not indeed know how to smile. I actually think I do know how to smile, and she is talking about my 15-year-old son Avery. Our 24-year-old son Andrew has a little smile he puts on. It’s not totally convincing, but it’ll do. We went through the Smile Wars with him years ago. Now he gives his little smile on command like a good soldier saluting mechanically. I am giving my regular smile, but it is slowly melting into a grimace. And Avery is doing whatever my wife doesn’t want him to do with his face that is threatening our entire family picture in front of a giant Christmas tree in the World Financial Center in Manhattan. We are fracturing in the very epicenter of Christmas, spending a holiday moment in hell trying to get a picture.
The smile problem is a hard one. The more you yell at someone to smile, the less natural his smile becomes. I solved this problem some time ago by never taking pictures of people. Robyn is more stubborn. She wants pictures of people, but they must be of happy smiling people. The prevailing mood of the moment for Avery, which can often be a gloomy existential teenage angst, is not nearly happy enough for her. (Look like you are having fun, damn your eyes!) As a teenager, Andrew used to respond with an earnest query to our picture-taking prompts. “I’m not having fun. Do you want me to fake it?” I would reply, “Yes. Totally fake it. Go back to hating life after the picture.”
Andrew went through a painful phase where he wanted no pictures of any kind taken of him. He was adamant about this. I was just getting into photography. I had gotten a new expensive camera for Christmas. I had a tripod I lugged around anxiously and never used. I figured if he didn’t want to pose, then my shots would have to be candid. We went to a theme park in Orlando when he was a senior in high school. He’d be doing something completely photo worthy. A rare smile would flash across his face. I’d whip out my camera. He’d put up a hand to block the photo as if I was an amoral paparazzi and he was a famous person tragically trying to live a normal life and eat an ice cream cone at Universal Studios like any normal person could without harassment.
I felt like dirt. I tried to memorize his rare smiles and later deleted all my photos of him running away from me or blocking the camera with his hand or running toward me with his fists clenched. Meanwhile, Avery made the kind of goofy faces that Robyn would never accept, and I shot a ton of photos of him. They are not smiles exactly. They are something like grins gone wrong. Goofy. Off kilter. But I was so happy to have a willing subject, I didn’t have the heart to tell him he wasn’t smiling correctly. Robyn later deemed every one of these photos unacceptable.
I stopped taking pictures of people. Not only because of Andrew and his hatred of being in a picture as a teenager or Avery’s endless smiles gone wrong. Andrew more or less grew out of his unphotographable stage a few years back and Avery can be coached to a decent smile with a series of escalating threats and promises. I stopped taking pictures of people because people kept getting in the way of what I wanted to take pictures of, obscuring the landscape in some fashion. The best picture I ever took was from the top of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina last summer. Avery and I put our thumbs up to indicate our joy at being on the mountain top, managing to leave the panoramic view of the mountains almost completely unblemished. Robyn says the two thumbs captured in my snapshot could belong to anyone. I know exactly who the two thumbs belong to. So, I say this is a perfect picture.
While my wife Robyn is definitely a part of the family, it is hard to find any photographic evidence of her since she is almost always the one taking pictures of people. Recently, I took a picture of my favorite picture of my two boys with my own distorted image mirrored in the decorative globes of a lampshade that I am really proud of. I don’t think Robyn would have fit in this picture. I should probably draw a picture of her with crayon so you have some idea what she looks like. But I am a horrible artist, so you would really have no idea what she looks like from my drawing.
Along one wall in my sister’s house in Kannapolis, North Carolina, there is a picture of me with my sister in which I sport a mustache. I appear as if I was trying feebly to change my own ethnicity in this photo. The mustache and my olive skin make it look as if I was trying hard to pass for a Mexican but wasn’t quite willing to put on a Sombrero to complete the effect. I don’t think all Mexicans must have mustaches or wear Sombreros. It’s just that the mustache makes me look like I am trying very hard in an artificial way to look Mexican in the same way that Burt Reynolds does in the movie “100 Rifles.” Not that I think that I look like Burt Reynolds.
I don’t know if any pictures exist in which I am wearing a beard. These may have all been burned by my mother. Or possibly no one ever bothered to take a picture of me during that hairy and uncomfortable season. Maybe all the people who might have taken a picture of me simply made a secret pact not to take any pictures of me until the beard came off.
My mom has a hard time getting us to pose for pictures. She always wants pictures during family vacations. But we don’t want to pose for them. We want to do whatever fun thing we were doing that made us smile before she noticed our smiles and then made us stop doing the fun thing to have our pictures made. We are impatient. And she fumbles with the camera like it is something odd that just dropped from the sky into her hands.
A full ten seconds after my patience has worn out is the moment she is ready to take the picture. Just when my smile has morphed into a hard grimace. A little anger seeps out of me involuntarily to be captured for posterity. I’m sure it’s there in nearly every photo. You can suss it out if you look long enough at my eyes. I’m being held prisoner in her photographic moment, dying inside in those long seconds I can’t move or talk or leave the frame.
One time, we were all packed and in the car about to drive twelve hours back to Alabama from a beach vacation with my parents when my mom started yelling down at us from the second floor balcony of the room we’d been renting. “I need a picture!” she screamed as I was backing out. “Just drive,” Robyn said. (She says now this was a kind of hopeful joke.) We were all worn out from the beach. And we had this epic drive home ahead. “Act like you didn’t hear her,” Robyn advised. I was caught between the two women I most want to please in life. My mom was in tears, pleading with me. Robyn was giving me a very hard look as I sat thinking.
My dad came up behind my mom on the balcony. He put his arms around her waist. He understood my mom’s deep desire for a perfect picture to crystallize this moment and my family’s exhaustion and need to leave. “Bye everyone,” he said waving. “She’ll be fine.” I knew she wouldn’t be fine for a while. I was paralyzed. Robyn finally urged everyone to get out and let my mom take a picture of us all grinning angrily in the parking lot in front of our packed car, possibly the worst family photo ever taken in history. My wife sighed deeply. I’d been forced to pick a side, but my wife felt I hadn’t picked her side quickly enough. You cannot always win with mothers and wives no matter which side you pick.
Our family picture in front of the giant Christmas tree takes ten minutes. I drop my packages. Andrew, who is visiting us in New York City from his home in Wilmington, North Carolina, takes off his jacket and sweater to expose a bright green shirt with a dinosaur on it. “That will make the photo interesting,” I remark. Andrew twists his torso oddly to completely turn his T-shirt around and obscure the image. He is being too sensitive. I really meant that the shirt would make the photo more interesting. Not that the dinosaur was going to ruin our family picture. I sometimes mean exactly what I say with no other nuanced meaning or underlying aggression involved. When I say a simple thing to him sometimes it is freighted with meaning I didn’t intend, hurtful like a handshake filled with rusty nails.
Avery keeps putting his arm around my shoulder, which is friendly and also annoying. This is something he does a lot because he’s taller than I am. I can’t stop him from being taller than I am. But his arm around my shoulder makes me feel like his little brother and not his father. I feel I should put my arm around his shoulder even if it means dislocating my shoulder. And he is not smiling correctly, as Robyn keeps pointing out. I can feel him making a weird face beside me, but I am powerless to correct it.
Finally, my wife snaps a picture. “I’m sorry,” Robyn says to a security guard who has been witnessing our dysfunctional picture-taking from a discrete distance. I wonder if this is something he witnesses all the time. Or is his family different? Do they all stand with perfect smiles on command, arranged in loving postures with the light just so? Is the whole family picture ordeal not an ordeal at all for them, just a simple quick moment to pose and shoot a perfect portrait?
I somehow doubt this picture perfect family exists. And if they did, they would probably have many serious issues that don’t show up in photographs. Like they’d all turn out to be cannibals. Hiding ponderously large femur bones discretely behind their backs during snapshots. Smiling with perfect razor sharp teeth and rumbling stomachs. So many literal skeletons in their closet, and so many perfect family pictures on display on their walls like the heads of wild animals.
The perfect family picture is a mirage we move away from even as we draw closer to it. It’s a myth we try to create that feels like false advertising. The truth is, you can take a picture of us. But all of our little tics and issues seep into the frame. They reveal themselves with scrutiny. We are a loving family. Not a picture perfect one. And that is good enough.