"Think about your parents dying," I scolded myself silently. "Imagine your wife leaving you. Remember watching TV on the morning of 9/11. Think about your cat dying." With that, something behind my eyes broke, and a trickle of tears squeezed out past my eyes. I pushed the Fun-Size Tootsie Roll across the counter with a wrinkled dollar bill and scrunched up my face for good measure.
"Tootsie Rolls are $1.10, sir," the cashier deadpanned. I took the news like it was the loss of a loved one and reached for my wallet, shoulders shaking. With a long, wet sniff, I passed the woman a five-dollar bill. Looking bored out of her mind, the woman counted back my $3.90 without any discernable trace of concern that a grown man stood in her convenience store, sobbing as he purchased an oversized log of imitation chocolate.
Tears Are Gonna Fall
I don't cry much. Dr. William Frey of the University of Minnesota recently reported that men cry an average of 1.4 times a month (women, 5.3), which seems preposterously high—1.4 times a year seems more like it. I've got no qualms with tearing up when the emotions hit; nobody's ever accused me of being wrapped up in macho bullshit. I talk openly about my feelings, I love depressing movies, and being around crying people doesn't especially bother me. But when it comes my turn to wet the hanky, I'm usually drier than a dust sandwich. In the past few years I can recall crying when my grandmother died; a few times when overwhelming family situations arose; when Hurricane Katrina devastated my home state; and during that stupid 9/11 movie, United 93.
But seeing men cry in public—at least on television—isn't that huge of a deal anymore. Not compared to a generation ago, anyway. So I took it upon myself to see how strangers would react to my manly tears. As it turns out, the responses were all over the board.
The Crying Game, Take Two
The caller ID read "United Financial." This was going to be an easy one. Sounding like you're crying is much easier than shedding actual tears.
"H-hello?" I sniffed into the receiver.
"Hello, Mr. Bowie?" said the woman on the other line.
I let out a pathetic whimper. "This is he."
"Mr. Bowie, this is Charice from United Financial Recovery." [a quiet, mournful wail here] "Is this a good time?"
My voice cracked as I told her that I guessed so.
"Could you please confirm that the last four digits of your Social Security Number are 4723?"
I gulped down three choky sobs before telling her that they were not.
"Are you sure this is an okay time for you, Mr. Bowie?" Charice sounded fairly concerned.
"Yes, please go on," I squeaked. "What is the nature of your call?"
All pity left Charice's voice once her authority was questioned. "I can't disclose that information until I confirm that I'm talking to Charles Bowie."
Figuring it was time to turn it up a notch, I let out a few bona fide boo-hoo-hoos and told her that my name wasn't short for Charles. "People have been making that mistake my whole life," I wailed.
You can only fake cry for so long before you start to feel genuinely sorrowful. In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell reports on a physiological finding that scientists discovered late in the last century: In a study of facial expressions, subjects who were asked to sustain grimaces of anger and distress began to feel genuinely terrible.
"Emotion doesn't just go from the inside out. It goes from the outside in," Gladwell explains. By simply mimicking emotions physically, "marked changes [occur] in the automatic nervous system," and the brain responds by producing the actual feelings. In other words, when people tell you to smile whether you feel like it or not, they're actually on to something. This might also explain why it's not such a great idea to go around fake-crying all the time. It's a real bummer.
By the time Charice asked me to confirm that I had in fact never lived on SE 166th, I felt a little worn out.
"Nuh, uh," I sniffed. "I think you have the wrong person." I acted like I was attempting to regain my composure, which was precisely what I was trying to do. "Mr. Bowie, I'm sorry to have inconvenienced you," said Charice, followed by a long pause. "Are you sure everything's okay?"
I wiped my eyes for dramatic effect, even though Charice was probably in a cubicle somewhere in Nevada. "I'm all right," I told her, voice still wavering. "Just one of those days. Good-bye." I hung up the phone and wiped my nose on the sleeve of my T-shirt. As it turns out, the difference between real tears and crocodile tears is smaller than I expected.
Bullitt Never Wept
In 1972, the former governor of Maine, Ed Muskie, was considered a forerunner for the Democratic presidential nominee. As an environmentalist and an engaging public speaker, Muskie was seen as a viable opponent to run against Richard Nixon. Then a New Hampshire newspaper wrote a disparaging article about Muskie's wife, and all hell broke loose. Muskie made a public speech to defend his wife's honor, and broke down in tears. The national media ran with the story, and Muskie's political career was over. The candidate backtracked and insisted that the tears were actually melted snowflakes that landed on his face, but the damage was done. Muskie lost the nomination to George McGovern. In the era of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood, manly tears were strictly taboo.
Thirty years later, all that's changed. We all saw Bill Clinton cry more times than we could count. (Once we saw him crying at his cabinet secretary's funeral mere seconds after video caught him clowning around and laughing backstage.) George Bush gets choked up whenever the occasion demands, much as his father was similarly prone to public weeping. No group embodies the new mindset better than athletes, though, who seem to be in an unspoken competition of who can weep the most. Once Michael Jordan broke the tear levee after Game Six of the 1996 Championships, jocks raced to produce the most newsreel-ready tears they could summon up. Upon his retirement last month, Andre Agassi appeared to be shooting for an Oscar with his lengthy blubber-thon.
The Crying Game, Take Three
For my last public display of grief, I needed to go out with a bang (or was it a whimper?). No running into a convenience store, no hiding behind the telephone. I needed to plant my ass somewhere and get some tears flowing. So I headed to a North Portland coffee shop and took a corner spot with my green tea and a journal. Props in hand, I conjured up a few droplets in the corner of my eye, but nobody was paying attention to me. A minute later, I let out a really obnoxious sniffle. The woman at the table next to me looked over, so I balled my face up and pretended to scribble furiously in my notebook. She turned away, uninterested. It occurred to me that the longer I drew this out, the longer I'd be publicly humiliating myself, so I called upon everything I had.
I thought of friendships gone bad. I relived my parent's divorce. I went back to the funeral of my favorite teacher who died in a car crash. I remembered a video I saw of a giraffe being shot. I flashed back to that night in 2001 that I'm not going to tell you about. That did it. I sat up straight in my chair and cried until my shoulders heaved. I made funny noises. I let the fake tears mix with the real ones. I picked my head up and saw that everyone in the coffee shop was looking at me. My table neighbor got out of her chair and squatted next to me, putting her hand on my quivering back. She didn't say anything, which was nice. I regained my composure and let out a few deep exhales.
"Are you okay?" the woman asked, appearing genuinely concerned.
Feeling bad about making her feel bad, it crossed my mind to confess the whole thing. I wasn't really crying, I thought about explaining. It's all for a story. These tears? Totally fake. But her concern was too comforting, and I couldn't tell if that was the truth anymore. Maybe I had undertaken this whole social experiment as a subconscious excuse to offload some pent-up sorrow. Whether I meant to or not, that's exactly what had happened. The line between playing sad and being sad had been blurred like streetlights in my refracted vision. I thanked the woman for her kindness and packed up my things.
As I left the café, I could feel everybody's eyes following me, the creepy crying guy. But I didn't care; I was starting to feel a little bit better. They say a good cry will do that for you.