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Things R.E.M. Has Taught Me: Shiny, Happy People vs. Everybody Hurts Sometimes

jennacallen2wcoals 0

I have a morning routine.  I don’t like for anybody to mess with it.  It sets the pace and the mood for the day.  I like for everything to be just so for a few minutes, because I know that, without question, the rest of the day will not be.  I start out slow and quiet.  I get up and make my coffee—a homemade cappuccino from a ten dollar coffeemaker (screw you, Starbucks).  My cappuccino is actually pretty amazing; I went through about ten pounds of coffee beans before I figured out how to make it taste just like a barista’s would.

I put my son in his high chair and fill his tray with cereal and fruit.  I kiss him.  Smile at him.  Don’t say much; just let him know that I love him.  Then I glance at email or Facebook, just to check in and see that everybody’s okay, and then it’s on to MSN and CNN and, when I’m feeling especially political, a quick look at the BBC page.  Finally, I write.  I prefer to write in the morning.  My mind is snapping with ideas.  All of my nerve endings are firing full-on and my eyes are as wide open as they’re going to get.  I am not one of those late-night creative types.  I’m one of those in-bed-by-9pm creative types.  At least, I would like to be in bed by then.  I fantasize about 9pm bedtimes.  In reality, it pretty much never happens.  At nine, my son is usually still running through the house with his underwear on his head, shrieking and talking to himself; shouting words that sound like “Thunderspice, Mommy!”  Besides, my husband doesn’t like it when I go to bed early.  He wants me awake and hanging out with him.  *Sigh*  So, I like to write in the morning.  If I am awake at night, it is very much against my will.

This morning starts off smoothly.  I even get to sleep an extra forty-five minutes.  Ka-ching!  I make my coffee.  Feed Little Boy.  On to Facebook.  Nope.  The site is down.  That’s a bump in the road.  I am a little annoyed, so I spend longer than usual browsing the MSN and CNN pages.  CNN is spouting its usual dire, hell-in-a-hand-basket news about planet earth.  I read.  I sigh.  Sigh some more.  I take a deep, steadying breath and then move on to the more lightweight coverage on MSN.  It has an article about “The Six Happiest Couples in the World.”  This should be a pleasant pick-me-up after reading about the intricacies of our faltering economy and all of the sadness and destruction which seem to wash like the waves of the sea over the middle east.  Okay.  Happy couples?  I can handle that.   I’m a chick so I’m buying.  I click.  I notice several things straight away.

First, each story is a hundred words or less.  It’s easy to sound happy and healthy in a hundred words, so I am slightly disillusioned.  Next, I notice that all six couples are wearing designer clothes and are ridiculously good-looking.  In fact, they’re not just attractive, they’re all really strikingly unusual looking—to the point that you find yourself sort of mesmerized by each photograph, while at the same time suddenly feeling that your own moderate degree of handsomeness is grossly inadequate.  I smell a rat.  Third, I notice that all six couples are very wealthy and exceptionally successful (we’re talking COO’s of fortune five hundred companies and owners of prestigious art galleries).  Oh, give me a break.  What do these people know about working hard on a relationship?  The most difficult thing in any of these women’s lives is trying to totter around all day on five-inch heels or trying to decide whether they will eat lettuce or…lettuce for lunch.  And I admit, that part would really suck.  Thank God I am not that attractive.  Too much responsibility.

I’m sorry, I recognize that it’s a bit uncharitable and I’m not proud of it, but I refuse to believe that people who look perfect when they wake up in the morning have to work hard at anything.  “I hate all six couples,” I think, unreasonably.  “This article is full of crap!”  I seethe as I read.  “They all look so friggin’ self-satisfied,” I say under my breath.  But it does get me thinking…

I have a pretty vivid imagination.  Thank you, Mama!  My mom read us thousands and thousands and thousands of books when we were kids.  She had us all reading at a really early age.  She’s an amazing mom—a woman I have always wanted to be like—and the gift of imagination is certainly one of the best a parent can nurture.  So, I start thinking about writing my own article, featuring our little family.  Are we happy?  Are we in the throes of deep, passionate love?  Are we wildly successful?

As I write this, my son is being disciplined for opening up the dishwasher (something he absolutely knows he is not allowed to do) and sticking his fingers in all of the pre-wash goo on the underside of the machine.  J is using his “stern Daddy voice.”  Little Boy is crying.  Next, my husband appears at the kitchen door carrying a bowl of cereal.  He sits down and spills most of his milk across the dining room table.  I always laugh at the most inappropriate things, and therefore immediately burst out laughing.  (I wish I would grow up and stopping doing this, but at thirty, I despair of it ever happening.)  My husband gives me a look which is at once a little hurt and utterly enraged.  “That wasn’t funny,” he snarls.

As he attempts to wipe up milk with his fingers, he shoots me a death-ray look and I choke, trying to swallow the hilarity within.  I spit a little cappucino onto the table and begin to cough, as java is propelled at the speed of light into my nasal cavities and maybe/probably up into my brain.  Now, as all of this is taking place, my son is throwing a fit because he wants Daddy’s bowl of cereal.  So J turns to correct him as another tidal wave of milk rolls across the table and onto the rug.  Little Boy bounces back quickly and races away to climb onto the dog’s back for a ride.  The dog, who weighs a good ten pounds less than my son, yelps in agony.

I have just changed my son’s diaper on our Persian-ish rug.  I believe that I have cleaned up carefully.  Evidently not.  Several jelly-bean sized poop nuggets have rolled off the discarded diaper and onto the multi-colored wool rug.  Amazingly, my husband manages to smash all three onto the soles of his bare feet as he races to save my son from the dog (or is it to save the dog from my son?).  My son shouts something unintelligible, falls off the dogs back, screams,  “Woof! Woof!” and then farts loudly.  I wish Annie Liebovitz were here to take pictures of this.  Where are my stilettos when I need them?  Maybe that’s why those beautiful women from the article on perfect love wear such high-heels.  Somehow, I doubt it.  Their kids probably don’t poop.

Next, I consider our attire.  Do we look dashingly elegant in a devil-may-care way—like the couples from the photographs?  I could be wrong, but I don’t think we have ever looked even remotely like the couples from the photographs.  Neither of us has ever even owned a designer knock-off, much less something legit… I am wearing what is certainly “casual early-morning attire” (i:e, pajamas).  My bottoms have various coffee and/or baby feces related stains and were once a sort of yellowy-green.  The green, or perhaps the yellow, has had a chance to age and the cotton is now the precise color of mold.  The orange tank top I threw on last night—while the word “SLEEP!” was roaring through my brain—could not clash more with any shade on the color wheel than it does with this one.  My son is wearing only a diaper and my husband has on boxers with the elastic torn out.  Yeah, we are one attractive, classy family, like something out of Better Homes and Gardens or—you know—MTV Cribs.  Why have I never thought of this before?

Next, I consider what romantic advice I would give.  The article-people suggest things like cooking together by candlelight or going out to dinner at a fabulous restaurant and slowly savoring your meal, knowing that your partner isn’t wearing any underpants.  What?

I think I would just feel ill if I knew my partner wasn’t wearing underpants while I was trying to eat my dinner.  Where did they find these people?  I think that my advice would be something along the prosaic lines of, “there’s nothing sexier than a man who can fold towels or knows his way around a vaccum cleaner.”

As for “romance:” in our house it passes for anything which can be hastily, stealthily carried out while our son is sleeping.   Shhhh!!!  Usually, our dates consist of holding hands and dozing through the super-high-quality programming and award-winning performances on the sci-fi channel.  We awake in the middle of the night on our sagging, coil-sprung couch from troubling dreams about enormous worms terrozing the inhabitants of arrid climates.  Our necks are sore, our palms sweaty and our fingers cramped.  For how many hours have we slept this way?  Should we even bother trying get up so we can make it into our bed?

I take mental snapshots as my mind sorts through all of these images.  Would any of them make it into a magazine?  Definitely.  If there was a magazine for the minimally-functional or the just-barely-making-it, we would be the feature article.   In fact, I would make a pretty darn good editor-in-chief of a magazine like that.  I’m kind of thinking of starting one.  The question is, am I too disreputable-looking to acquire a business loan?  I think I may have a blazer somewhere…if that would help.

Are we one of “The Six Happiest Couples in the World?” I find myself thinking again.  Well, define “happy.”  Does it involve early morning capoeira sessions, followed by champagne and botox for lunch and an afternoon reiki session?  Or is it my kid running through the house, making sounds like a hyperventilating monkey, leaving post-apocolyptic waste in his wake as he smiles like a cheshire cat?  Is it a twenty-two inch waist, or slightly worse-for-the-wear (there was a baby in there, folks) stomach muscles?  Is it a weekend retreat in our repurposed barn in upstate New York, or a dog hair-filled, hundred year old house awash with once-functioning baby toys?

I suppose “happy” means different things for different people.  If my life is to be measured by the standards of the shiny, happy magazine people, then it’s a real bummer, man.  But if I can lower the bar, or just change it altogether, I think it’s actually pretty great.  Not pretty.  But pretty great.  For instance, there are three red roses in a simple glass vase on my kitchen counter.  My husband brought them home last night with a piece of chocolate cake and told me that I am a wonderful mom.  He may have been lying a little.  But it was the best lie I’ve ever heard and the best compliment anyone could ever give me.  Strewn across every available square inch of floor space are the multi-colored, Chinese manufactured reminders of the three years we have had with our son—the son we dreamed of for nearly nine years; the son we planned on having before we ever went on our first date.  We had no idea he would be such a maniac.  On the other hand, he is far, far better than the greatest of our greatest dreams.

Our bedroom is still (halfway through the day) completely trashed.  It is littered with dirty diapers and nearly-dead pillows and clothes that the homeless would probably give away.  The crumpled red and white sheets on our bed are the ones we bought together at Wal-Mart when we were engaged.  They are so cheap that no one thought to count the threads.  They are so worn out and faded that you can’t tell that they were once printed with red roses.  They’re the sheets we have loved on.  Whispered our secrets on.  Laughed on ‘til we peed ourselves a little.  Hotly debated whether or not Brad and Angie reallyhave a future together.  We have fought on them.  Argued politics and religion.  Been petty.  Been selfish.  Been selfless.  Pouted.  Forgiven each other.  We have given up on each other and started over, time and time again, while lying there.  Those sheets are the holy ground from which we have lifted up a hundred thousand prayers.  We have, from beneath their comfort, talked far, far into the night.  Cried on them.  Held each other forever on them.  Farted into them, and made our son on them (not necessarily in that order).

The cheap couches we bought together just before we married have not aged well.  They are not a nod to good taste.  They are certainly not a reflection of high achievement.  But, on the upside, they have lovingly cradled the asses of our favorite people in the world.  They have supported us as we sat—on the edge of our seats—in our living room at 1am, all of us shrieking at the top of our lungs because of the (metaphorical ) thirst for blood inevitably produced by game night (especially Caleb, Cory and I—we have competitivity issues).  I have nursed a baby on them.  We have had some of the most important conversations of our lives on those cushions and gotten to know our best friends in the world while seated there.  They cost three hundred bucks a piece.  We didn’t find them at a flea market on a weekend jaunt to Paris, nor did we have them lovingly reupholstered in handmade, silver dupioni silk by an interior designer—complete with generic european accent—named something like, “Anders,” or “Xavier” (no last name).  We just picked a color of cheap cotton duck that we thought wouldn’t show dirt.  It definitely does.

Are we one of “The Six Happiest Couples in the World?”  Yeah.  If one of those six couples can be poor, fairly unsuccessful, unquestionably disorganized, basically flea-ridden and in great need of a pair of toenail clippers.  If that’s the case, then, yes, absolutely we are.  I’ve met about a million people and—hands down—my husband’s still my favorite.  No one else can even come close.  No one else has ever made me look twice.  No one else has ever had a fraction of the allure that he has for me.  I’ve seen about a million lives and I’ve never yet seen one that has tempted me to pull the ol’ switcheroo.  If being a happy couple means your hair always has “natural” caramel and honey highlights and that you were “just born with these breasts” and make above six figures and have tantric sex under a waterfall in the tropics and your morning breath smells like hydrangeas, then no, we definitely don’t make it into the top six.  But even so, I think they’d have to let us slide in at number seven.  We may always wear our underpants when we go out to dinner, but still, we truly love each other.  Still, we are really happy.

Beat that, MSN.

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