The Expressionists

By Anna Mitchael

“Happy!” “Sad!” “Discombobulated!”

We have a new game we’ve been playing at home lately. One person names a feeling, then everyone else screws up their faces to show how that feeling looks. For example, if I say, “Sad!” then you make a face like you just walked into Captain Billy Whizzbang’s only to find they’ve run out of beef.

Our toddler doesn’t play the game because his face is permanently frozen in a look of Anticipation For What I Might Break Next. But three people making faces in public is enough to inspire total strangers to stop (at a safe distance) and ask what, exactly, we are doing.

One woman, bless her hippie heart, was elated we were working to develop empathy in our kids. After zero deliberation, I took the compliment. No way was I going to mention the game started because I was trying to have a more expressive face.

Have you read the trending articles on “resting witch face”? It is a face, the internet says, women get at a certain age. First we just had to worry about our chestal regions drooping, but now we must be overly aware of our facial regions too.

And while I tell myself I am young in spirit (just yesterday I took the playground slide at harrowing speed), in my heart of hearts I know I’ve been squinting to read the fine print in advertisements for Botox. So “trying to have a more expressive face” joined the list of measures I’ve taken against aging, such as wrinkle creams and my purchase last summer of a crop top.

We make “Mad!” faces. “Excitement!” faces. And my personal favorite, “Loopy!” The first time around I had to explain the meaning of “Loopy!” to our 5-year-old. After learning it was feeling light, a little confused and off on your own planet, he said, “Oh, like Mom after she’s been working in her study for a long time.” Now when “Loopy!” comes up and he crosses his eyes while shaking his head quick and fast, like a washing machine spin cycle gone wrong, I feel a thump of pride for all I have taught him.

After all, working in my study — writing books, articles, some advertisements you might have squinted to read while lining your cat’s litter box — is what first taught me about expressive faces.

When you’re a kid with a swinging ponytail and a big smile, if you announce you want to be a writer someday, adults respond with a face that encourages, Yes, you can!

But then you become a teenager. The ponytail swings less, moodiness flares more. When you mention being a writer, you note the slightest shadow creeping across the faces of adults, one that says, Yes, you can! And you can also prepare a lovely back-up career in law!

By the time you’re a bonafide adult with a bonafide bun instead of a ponytail, if you mention you still want to be a writer, prepare for pity. There is no shadow — it’s a full-blown eclipse. From hairline to hair on the chinny chin chin, it’s, Well, don’t quit your day job.

For the longest time I dreaded those expressions. Maybe those people knew something I didn’t. But now — maybe it’s being older or just not wanting to waste time worrying what other people think — if I say I am a writer, and someone responds with a doubtful expression, one that says, You don’t look like a writer, more like a mom with her hair in a two-day-old bun, I just smile.

“Determination!” came up a couple of days ago. I looked in the rearview mirror to see my son’s face twisted into the look of a person who will not stop. Who will climb, crawl, maneuver, run and work to reach his goals — who will go until his tank is empty.

And it made my heart thump, thump.

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