Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Secret to Happiness

I usually try to save up all my bad luck and blow it all at once in one long day.  It’s kind of like getting immunized against the flu, the mumps, the measles, the chickenpox, and the plague in one big old mother of a shot.  I figure after that I should be good for a couple of years before another wave of wonderful heads my way.

Here’s the problem—I’m not in charge of Trouble.  And Trouble has a mind of its own.

So what’s the crisis this time?  Another expensive car repair. We took our truck in to the mechanic for a little ol’ brake job and some routine maintenance.  He said it should be two hundred dollars less than it ended up costing us. And I responded, this check should be good at the bank.  He didn’t even smile as he handed me the keys to our gold plated Chevy.

If we weren’t mechanically challenged, we could handle things like this ourselvSes and save the cost of labor.  But the love of my life and I have something in common—we don’t know how to fix stuff. We’ve tried, believe me, but we gave it up years ago for the sake of our marriage. I’m no good at fixing busted things (I don't even like to sew buttons back on), and my husband resigned as part-time handyman after I asked him if we could afford for him to make any more repairs.  I had to give back my Wife of the Year award after that.

When things break down, I break down.  Okay, I panic.   

Like that time when we smelled smoke in our house.  My husband is a fireman.  It’s a really bad idea for a fireman’s house to burn down—it’s so embarrassing.  We had no idea where the burned wiring smell was coming from, but I was pretty sure it was something electrical. 

That narrowed it down. 

I ran back and forth through the house, trying to think what to grab if the whole place suddenly burst into flames and came up with . . . pretty much nothing.  It was late evening, and I was more worried about being bra-less than homeless, so I put one on under my jammies, grabbed my wedding rings, and ran outside with a flashlight. I had no plan, but I was clothed and bejeweled. 

The Rock of Gibraltar under pressure—that’s me.

Once, years ago, the dishwasher broke and, as gallons of water spewed out from under the sink flooding our whole kitchen, I stood in fascination—completely paralyzed—waiting for the water to stop of its own accord.  When it didn’t, I began running back and forth from the front door to the kitchen with my head in my hands moaning, “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do!”  My teenage son, meanwhile, went outside and shut off the water at the main valve, and my daughter grabbed towels to mop up Noah’s flood.  Together, they singlehandedly shored up the dam.

At least I raised smart kids.

I am worthless in a crisis, I tell you.  If it wasn’t for the doctors in the delivery room, there’s no telling how long I’d have stayed pregnant before doing the intelligent thing and giving birth.

I’ve discovered the root of the problem, though. It’s that little phrase, should be.  It sounds so harmless.  But don’t be fooled.  It’s not. It’s as deadly as a two-year-old with the sniffles. Just cozy up to that little bit of innocence, and you might as well cross two weeks off your calendar right now, cuz you’re going down.  And it’ll be ugly.

Things are never as they should be.  If things were as they should be, chocolate would have no calories, clocks would have no faces, and good novels would have no endings.  Gas would cost us pennies, houses would be self-cleaning, and teenagers would all be grateful.  Government would be intelligent, nothing would be clearly ambiguous, and mornings would always be good.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve fallen under the spell of unrealistic expectations.  That’s where disappointment comes from.  Not from your husband. Not from your wife. Not from learning the truth about Santa.   

Disappointment comes from unrealistic expectations.

The secret to happiness is having realistic expectations.  I don’t usually know what those look like—reference Paragraph One above—but I’ll try to take a stab at it.

Realistically, you must understand that everything you need to get to work on time is going to break down at exactly the moment you pull out of the driveway.  That’s Murphy’s Law—if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. My husband says that the law of our house is that Murphy was an optimist. But you know you’ll get through it just like always, so stop running back and forth with your head in your hands crying, “I don’t know what to do!

In other words, don't be like me.

Does this mean we shouldn’t hope for a brighter day?  Nope. All this means is that I had a bad day today and then I came home and whined for twelve hundred words at your expense because I ran out of chocolate.  Writing has fewer calories than chocolate.  But chocolate has fewer readers.  And, it’s possible, that after you finish reading this tome, I will have fewer readers, too. So let me leave you with these words of wisdom written by a bunch of cowards too afraid to take credit for them. 

Keep smiling, and one day life will get tired of upsetting you.”

Well, that’s just stupid.  Life lives to upset you.  Let’s try again. 

Always ask God to give you what you deserve and not what you desire. Your desires may be few, but you deserve a lot.”  

Are you kidding me??  He’s not Aladdin’s Lamp, you know.  And do you know how nice He’s already been to me?  If He gave me what I deserve, there’d just be an oily spot on the ground where I used to be. That’s the last thing I’m asking for. Where do they come up with these things?  One last try. 

Life is like a kaleidoscope, you get lots of views. So forget what people say and cheer up.

Well, I don’t even know what that means.  Forget what people say and cheer up?  Because life is a kaleidoscope?  That’s what you get when you listen to strangers on the internet. Nothing but nonsense. Thanks, but I’ll just wing it from here.

I think when life gives you lemons and then knocks over your pitcher of lemonade, you just go get a mop and clean it up.  You don’t have to break down.  But in case you do, don’t beat yourself up for feeling disappointed.  And stop listening to folks who keep trying to should on you.  All you need to be happy again is to do what I do. That's not the same as being like me.  Don't be like me.  Just do what I do. 

I climb inside my gold-plated Chevy, drive up to my favorite barista's gold-plated window, put five bucks down on the counter and repeat this mantra:

 I’ll have a cafĂ©-mocha vodka-valium latte to go, please.

I’ve said it twice this morning.   I feel better already. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


It sits on the corner of the garden tub I never use. I bought it at Hobby Lobby one afternoon because I love its short sentiment:  Breathe.  You wouldn’t think you’d need a wooden plaque to remind you to do that, would you?  But there are days when I do.
Today was one of those days.  I’m pretty sure it’s not a good idea to get political here—no one seems to appreciate the passion of a conservative—but let’s just say that if you do the math and today is the day after election day 2012 and I’m more of an elephant lover than half of America’s population—well, it’s a sad day for those of us who don’t think much of donkey politics.
On top of that, I’ve had a toothache the size of Hurricane Sandy.  Which, by the way, may have had something to do with the washout of the east coast’s support for a certain. . . elephant. Not the toothache.  The hurricane.  Just saying.  Plus, we have repair bills to cover and a retirement plan to adjust to and taxes that are going to rise in January thanks to, well, never mind, and we didn’t get our rye grass in this year in the front yard.  Or the back yard.  So now the dried up back yard is going to be in my family room every time the dog comes inside from her potty breaks. It was my money saving idea, so I only have myself to blame. I’ll try to remember that while I vacuum. And when the HOA complains.
Then that toothache got in the way of my funny bone and now I’m two days behind in my challenge of writing fifty thousand words in one month.  Christmas is coming and medical expenses this year tied our budget up in knots so now my stomach is doing the same thing.  Every day has trouble of its own—and then some.
It’s enough to make a person forget to . . . breathe.
“Just breathe.”  I love that advice.  The first time I heard it was in the movie, Hope Floats, with Sandra Bullock, who just may be the funniest, best actress on the planet.  Her character was a gal who’d been rejected despite her best efforts to be perfect.  What a drag, huh?  The thing you’re trying to avoid by being everybody’s best friend turns out to be the thing that brings you down. 

It’s an illusion.  It’s a goal that’s moved every time you almost reach it.  Kind of like those poor greyhounds who run forever in circles after a stuffed rabbit.  If they ever caught the thing they live to win, they’d wind up with a mouth full of stuffing and a stomach that’s still aching.
Our dog loves stuffed animals.  We don’t make her run in circles for one—we just make her go get a bath at the groomer’s and then we reward her with a squeaky hedgehog.  It’s a five dollar bribe to put up with a thirty dollar bath.  Dogs sure are expensive.  But that poor hedgehog always gets the worst of the deal.  His lifespan is shorter than that of a mayfly, which is only thirty minutes.  Clinched in the jaws of our mighty mutt, DestructoDog, a stuffed hedgehog has been known to expire in just under five minutes. 

At least it’s relatively painless.
Nothing lasts forever.  Not toys.  Not presidencies. Not even bad days.  Who said it?  Oh, yeah, one of my favorite musical philosophers, Bryan Duncan.  “If there’s one thing you can count on, things are gonna change.”  It’s pretty easy to pinpoint change.  Every week the prices at the gas pumps change.  Babies change. Even faster than gas prices. Just one month after my son and daughter-in-law brought home their second daughter, their seven pound angel had already gained a pound.  Now that’s fast.  She increased her size by one-seventh in four weeks.  If I did that, I couldn’t fit in my Lazy Boy.
There’s plenty of proof all around us that nothing stays the same.  But for some reason, I default to the idea that if I could just get all my eggs in one basket, keep all the plates spinning, and give the dog all my dust bunnies so she can chase them instead of me, that would be perfection.  And perfection would finally make me happy.
It’s not true.
I read excerpts of a king’s autobiography* just now. He had so much money he did absolutely everything he wanted to do without any guilt at all. Kind of a lottery roller coaster ride. He had no debt.  He had no political fear.  He owned everything and everyone.  And he was a nice guy.  But after he achieved his own little State of Utopia, he wasn’t happy.  He asked himself, “What’s left to do after you’ve been king? That’s a hard act to follow.”  And he ended up saying that he hated life.
I think he forgot to do the most important thing of all.  With all his wealth and women and liquor and parties and real estate and power, he lived so fast and hard and easy that he forgot the one thing we all need to live.  He forgot to breathe.
It’s the hard things in life that force me to take time to breathe.  When life gets tough, I get tense.  My wrinkles get wrinkled. My worry wart shows. And just at the moment when I fear I’ll fall in failure, I run across that reminder again:  Breathe.  Then I fill my lungs full, exhale my stress, and let go of that suffocating obsession with perfection.
Life is good.  Even in an off year of politics.  Even in the dentist’s chair.  Even with a stack of bills.  Life is good.
I just need to remember to breathe.

(*Ecclesiastes 2:12)