“Nice” comes to us from Megan Stielstra’s new book Once I was Cool, published by Curbside Splendor and on sale now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell’s.
Picture it: 1998, I’m 23 years old and sitting on the front couch at Tuman’s, which back then was called The Alcohol Abuse Center. Remember the Alcohol Abuse Center? Right?! The most miserable, disgraceful, health-code violating awesome fucking dive bar in Chicago? Seriously. Fireside Bowl, Liar’s Club, the Mutiny on Western where I once saw a guy pee in the corner pocket of the pool table—all five-star fine dining compared to Tuman’s in the ‘90s.
Tuman’s in the ‘90s had Old Style on tap for two bucks. Tuman’s in the ‘90s had a jukebox with Fugazi, Motorhead, and John fucking Philip fucking Sousa. Tuman’s in the ‘90s had a motto: “We service and install all hangovers,” and believe you me, they did the job. I lost whole chunks of my early twenties to this place, with a notable exception being that one awful night on the front couch, when Jackson Jackman told me I was JUST. TOO. NICE.
Jackson fucking Jackman. At the time, he played guitar for a band called The Lasertags. Have you heard of The Lasertags? No? Shocking. They described themselves as Jane’s Addiction meets Captain Beefheart meets Godspeed You! Black Emperor, which to me sounded like a lot of fucking noise. But it didn’t matter because Jackson Jackman had a strip of hair that fell over his eyes; he wore very tight, ironic T-shirts from the kid’s section at Salvation Army; and when he played guitar, he’d open his mouth, like he was singing the chords. Also, he had the phrase “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” tattooed across his chest, which—since I loved Vonnegut—was so totally a sign. Who cared that he didn’t have a job. Who cared that my friend Dia regularly saw him passed out in Swank Frank at the corner of Milwaukee and Damen. Who cared that he went on “tour” with The Lasertags and would call from the “road” to say how much he missed me. And one night, after an especially emotional phone call from “Philly,” I went to Tuman’s to have a late drink and there he was. Sitting at the bar. With a girl.
Everything, most definitely, was not beautiful.
Everything, most definitely, hurt.
He took me to the couch and explained that he was going to tell me, really he was, but you know how sometimes, when you have to do something, you keep putting it off? Like getting an oil change, for example?
I said, “Am I the oil change in this scenario?”
And he said, “Oh, Megan. You’re JUST. TOO—” and yes, of course, I knew what was coming; not because I’d heard it before, but because I’d said it. I’d told my first boyfriend, Brad, that he was <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>too nice for me, because I was scared to say I didn’t love him back. I told my friend Kelly that she deserved someone nicer, because I was too confused to say I knew that I was straight. I told Andy, the guy I didn’t know how to get rid of, that he was just too nice, because I didn’t have the wisdom or the language or the balls to say, “I don’t have any idea what I am looking for in a boyfriend or a lover or a partner, but I do know, without a shadow of a doubt, that you are not it.”
None of that has anything to do with nice.
Now, granted, I’m no expert in linguistics, but somewhere along the line, NICE got a pretty bad rap. We use it when the truth is too messy, too complicated. We use it as a replacement for needy.
Prudish—prudish for chrissakes, like that makes any sense! Personally, I think having a partner fulfill all your crazy, wild, innermost sexual fantasies is pretty goddamn nice! But the point, the point is this: how has this single, simple, lovely word come to represent anything besides its actual dictionary definition of being a decent fucking human being?
The “fucking” part isn’t really in the dictionary.
The decent part is.
So is kindness. Honesty. Compassion. Generosity.
All things this world could use a little more of, don’t you think?
Picture it: 2012, I’m 37 years old, standing in the lobby of Pump It Up, which if you haven’t had the pleasure, is a ginormous indoor arena of inflatable bouncy castles where your children turn into foaming, rabid animals. I’m hand-in-hand with my four-year-old son, who’s already twitching with excitement and sugar and helium balloons. We’re here for his school friend’s birthday party, one of twenty birthday parties happening that moment simultaneously, which means there are—no joke–hundreds of batshit crazy children everywhere, and all of them are jumping. My imagination, usually my greatest asset as a writer, is now, as a parent, my greatest liability because I can see, almost cinematically, all their little skulls cracking together—the massive ER bills, the missing person reports, parenting bloggers writhing in judgment—and in the midst of it all, my little boy tugs on my hand.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” he says. “You can let go. I <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>promise I’ll be nice.”
Here’s what he means when he says nice: I’ll say please and thank you. I won’t cut in line. No biting, no kicking, no hitting. I’ll let the littler kids go up the ladder first, and if they need help, I’ll help. When you ask me something, I’ll listen.
Let’s imagine what might happen if—right now, in this very second of reading these words—we reclaim the idea of nice and what it has the potential to achieve. Maybe buy the person sitting next to you a drink; they might really need it. The next time you go through a toll, pay the fare of the person behind you. Chicago, if you get back to your car before the parking ticket runs out of time, give the sticker to the person waiting for your spot. Might make their day, and we could all use our day made, right? Listen. Let the person you’re talking to finish their sentence. Don’t use the time they’re talking to figure out what you’re going to say next. If someone is being a jackass, step up. You overhear something racist, sexist, homophobic, call that shit out. It’s on you. It’s on us. Be NICE. Back something interesting on Kickstarter later—that’s someone’s idea, someone’s dream, someone’s pulsing heart. College teachers: Don’t call your students <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>kids. They’re not kids. Also: don’t start sentences with Kids today,because then I’ll have to vomit all over you, and that wouldn’t be very nice of me, now would it? Before you hit send on that email—you know the one I’m talking about; the one where you’re a little passive-aggressive and maybe even used the caps lock key—take a lap or two around the house. It’ll give you a second to think things through, calm down a little bit, and even log some steps on your Fitbit! Win-win! Also winning: sleep. Sleep on it. Sleep on everything, always. Before you make the shitty anonymous comment on the Internet, consider the fact that there’s a real person on the other end, reading your words and feeling that punch to the chest. Can we use a phrase other than, “I didn’t like it,” or “It sucked,” to talk about movies or TV shows or music or books or art? Somebody made that. In fact, can we put a moratorium on the word <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>suck entirely unless in reference to lollipops, Dyson, or super-hot sex? Be honest in your assessment, be authentic in your language, but be nice. BE FUCKING NICE. If all this sounds too hard, too impossible, then may I respectfully suggest you put down this book and go take a vacation. I give you permission. Go online and buy a ticket to somewhere: a quiet beach, a noisy jazz fest, even the hotel down the street for a night if you need some sleep. Sleep is a major ingredient for niceness. If someone cuts you off in traffic, let it go, it doesn’t matter in the grand, glowing scheme of you and me and all of us breathing a little easier. Above all else, when you get home tonight, write these words on a Post-it note:
BE KIND, FOR EVERYONE YOU MEET IS FIGHTING A HARD BATTLE.
Stick that Post-it to your bathroom mirror and read it every morning, before you leave the house:
 Not his real name, duh.
 Not their real name, duh.
 This part is real, but I’m not worried about giving him away because I’d wager tons of people have this same tattoo.
 This has been attributed to Plato, Philo of Alexandria, and John Watson aka Ian MacLaren. My thanks to all those guys.
Megan Stielstra is the author of Once I Was Cool, a collection of essays. Her work appears in The Best American Essays 2013, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere, and her story collection, Everyone Remain Calm, was a Chicago Tribune Favorite of 2011. She is the Literary Director of the 2nd Story storytelling series and has told stories for all sorts of theaters, festivals, and bars (many, many bars) including the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cabinet of Wonders, Neo-Futurarium, Chicago Public Radio, and regularly for The Paper Machete live news magazine at the Green Mill. She teaches writing & performance at Columbia College and serves as the Associate Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching Excellence.