New stuff in the Happy household

I don’t blog much anymore, but for the five of you who still check in I thought I should provide a small update. As you probably know, I was out of work for 18 months. I say “was” because I recently accepted a position at a Bible software company here in Austin. It’s the first job I’ve had since graduating from college that is not a writing position. Instead, I’m putting my web coding skills to work as an e-book developer. It’s a nice change of pace, as I had pretty much burned out on writing every day.

I realized recently that unemployment has been a recurring theme in my adult life. I quit a job two weeks before my (May) wedding, and found employment in September. Since my new bride worked in the public school system at the time, those three-and-a-half months of not working were like an extended honeymoon. I kept that September job until shortly after we moved to New York, when the company laid off 1300 people, including me. That was in March, and I was working again by May. I kept that job almost five years, but then lost it in another round of layoffs. One week later we found out Tater was on the way. Nine months later, he arrived and I still didn’t have a job. Six months after that, I still didn’t have a job and…

Our other bit of news is that we’re expecting another baby. Pregnancy literature states that it shouldn’t be possible to conceive while the mother is nursing, but that’s no guarantee. We are living proof of the second part. Tater was six months old when Mrs. Happy took a home test and discovered that another little life was growing inside her. Our (first?) two children will be 15 months apart. I hope that means they’ll be close friends as well as siblings.

We devised an ingenious method of announcing the new arrival to our parents. We bought a little shirt for Tater and designed an iron-on transfer telling the world that he was no longer an only child. Since the shirt was small and we wanted the message to be subtle (so the grandparents would have to think about it a little and kind of earn the knowledge), we simply printed the word brotobe in a wacky font across the chest, with two little faces on the shirt pocket. We set up a dinner, ostensibly for my birthday, where the happy in-laws could see the shirt at the same time as my mother. I also took a photo of Tater in his special shirt and e-mailed it to my dad, who lives about 250 miles away.

The big moment came, and we presented a message-bearing Tater to his grandparents. We expected them to take a moment to absorb the meaning of the cryptic word. I thought I would sense their thought-gears pulling brotobe through a series of possible pronunciations and then producing a mental flowchart of word associations while a curly flourescent bulb hummed to life just above their heads as they realized that if Tater is to be a brother then they would be having another grandchild. That’s what I envisioned, anyway. What actually happened was nothing. The shirt might as well have read If it’s too loud, you’re too old or Love the baby, ignore the tee for all the reaction it elicited. No one spoke of it all the way through dinner. I was so excited I could barely eat, but the oblivious grandparents all enjoyed a fine meal.

After the dishes were cleared, I picked up my son and said, “Has anyone noticed this shirt?” That question, at least, drew blank stares. I started walking them through the process. “It’s pronounced BRO-too-bee.” No reaction. “As in brother-to-be.” Brows furrowed, but made no sound. “Which is to say, Tater’s going to be a brother.” I didn’t know how to be any more clear without producing the pee stick. Finally, father-in-law looked at Mrs. Happy and said, “So…are you pregnant?” And there was much rejoicing.

I then called my father. He had gone to church straight from work, then out to eat with friends, so he hadn’t been home to check his e-mail. I eagerly described for him the photo. He said, “Well, that sounds neat. I’ll be sure to check it out when we get home. So, how’s everything else going?”

I intuited from his response that he didn’t understand the message any better than the other grandparents, so I elaborated: “That’s BRO-too-bee…as in brother-to-be.” He responded, saying, “Yeah. That’s cool. So we’re out having Chicago-style pizza. I’ve never had that before…” And he just blathered on about how he was standing in a Chicago-style pizza parlor set in an unlikely East Texas town. I interrupted:

“Do you see any significance in the message that Tater is a brother-to-be?”

“Yeah, I see significance in that. That’s cool…So these people we know are the ones who run this pizza place—”

“Dad! What sort of significance are you talking about?”

“Well, he’s in a Christian family and probably one day he’ll—”

Thankfully, my stepmother (inaudible to me) interrupted him, curious to know what he was talking about. He described for her the photo exactly as I had described it to him, even including the emphasis on “brother-to-be.” Though she was several feet away from the phone, I heard her response: “So you’re saying she’s pregnant again?!”

To which my father responded, “No, I’m saying…wait, is that what you’re saying?”

And there was, at last, much rejoicing.

It was frustrating, and I now question the wisdom of attempting such subtlety, but at least we have a story to tell.


When my wife was pregnant last year, we gave the baby the nickname of Tater, which was short for gestater. This new one we’re calling Tobe (pronounced TOE-bee).

My vow

Mrs. Happy and I used traditional vows at our wedding. Now whenever we attend a wedding where the bride and groom exchange the traditional vows, we effectively renew our own. That’s why we chose to use words that have been spoken by millions of others in the past and hopefully millions more in the future. That’s why tradition is so powerful. That’s part of why I don’t like it when couples write their own vows. I also dislike that practice because most people don’t have the ability to succinctly express their feelings, so they tend to give flowery speeches that say nothing. Even when people know how to articulate what they feel, I don’t think feelings should even be mentioned in wedding vows—a vow is a promise and not a statement of emotion, and original vows also tend to leave out the promise.

Having said that, I should also say that I have never understood the practice of formally renewing wedding vows. I don’t disapprove, but no one has ever explained to me the reasons for it. People I respect have renewed their vows, several times in some cases, so I think there must be something to it; I just don’t know what. Still, it occurs to me that there may be some merit in periodically reminding my wife of what I promised her eight years ago. It also occurs to me that if I remind her in private, I don’t need to concern myself with tradition for the benefit of witnesses, which frees me to write something original.

I spoke traditional vows to my bride at our wedding. I’ve learned a lot about her, about myself, and about in the years since then, and this is now my vow to her:

I, Curt, promise you, Happy Bride, that I will love, honor, and cherish you for the rest of my life. I will do my best to provide for you, protect you, encourage you, equip you, and celebrate you in your beauty. I will treat your hardships as my own and comfort you in your troubles. I will make it my mission to deserve your devotion and be worthy of your respect. I will set an example for our children and work alongside you to raise them with love and discipline. I will grow with you, laugh with you, cry with you, dance with you, offend you, beg your forgiveness, bear your offenses, and always forgive you. I will love you with all of my soul, with all of my mind, and—as long as I have both breath and blood—with all of my body. I thank God now and forever that he has brought us together.

Hindsight is 20/40

I lost my job as a copywriter in March of 2005. I haven’t had a full-time job since then, though I’ve done quite a bit of freelance work. I like the variety that freelance provides, but I hate not knowing whether I’ll have enough money to pay the bills next month. Mrs. Happy and I have always managed our money wisely, though, so even the lean months have not been too scary. Even so, I think I’d prefer having a regular job that provides a steady income and health benefits for my family.

I actually received a job offer a few months ago. It would have brought us fantastic insurance and a so-so salary, but it seemed to be a tedious job that would suck me dry and send my career in a direction I didn’t want. So I turned it down. Our money is now running low, and our insurance is still outrageously expensive. I wonder sometimes whether I made the wrong decision in turning down that job. I believed a better job was waiting for me and that I would find it in a matter of days. I believed I would not stay unemployed long enough for our money to run out. It seems I was mistaken about pretty much everything.

I’m still not convinced I should have taken that job. They say hindsight is 20/20, but that applies only to what has actually happened. I can look back and see with perfect clarity the consequences of turning down that particular job, but I can’t see what would have happened had I accepted it. I imagine that if I had taken the tedious job, I would be abjectly miserable right now. It would have entailed doing the dullest work in an industry renowned for its dullness. It would have meant earning more than $10,000 less per year than my last job. It would have pigeon-holed me for future employers as the kind of writer I don’t want to be.

I can’t know that for sure, of course. I really liked the people I interviewed with. The work might actually have been challenging and rewarding. I might have received a quick raise in pay. The job might have been the first step on a great career trajectory. I’ll never know. What I do know is that, at least in this instance, looking back doesn’t help. Did I make the right decision? Were there even right and wrong decisions to make? Were there other options that I didn’t examine? I’ll never know.

I’ve heard it said that experience is a teacher that gives you the test, then gives you the lesson. As I get older, I’m finding that experience is often a little unclear about the lesson even after the test. If a smart man learns from his mistakes, and a wise man learns from others’ mistakes, I wonder what kind of man can’t even figure out if he made a mistake. Uncertainty is one of the heaviest burdens for someone who places a great deal of value on solid understanding. If I can still have the love and respect of my wife after a decision like that, and my wife does let me know every day that I have her love and respect, it’s a burden I can bear with faith and fortitude.

Impossible questions

I’m usually pretty good at figuring out the right answer or deflection for horribly loaded questions posed to me by my wife. Whenever she asks something like, “Does this shirt look good on me,” I mentally run through a few possible scenarios and judge which response has the best chance of preventing an Exorcist-level implosion. For instance:

  • if I say “Yes” without hesitation, she may suspect that I did not really consider the question to offer an actual opinion and that I am just saying what I think she wants to hear because I fear her and think she’s fat.
  • if I say “Yes” after pausing for exactly two seconds, she may suspect that I supressed my highly negative gut reaction and caught myself just in time to save my own skin.
  • if I say, “Not really. But it’s the shirt, not you,” she may take a quick inventory of every item of clothing she owns in a similar color and style and decide that I must hate half her wardrobe.
  • if I say, “Didn’t you wear that shirt last time?” I may avoid having to answer the question entirely as I get her trying to remember what she has worn on past occasions. A bonus is that it makes her think I notice and remember what she wears.
  • if I say, “That shirt has always looked good on you,” she will understand that I have dutifully noticed her looking good in the past, and that I have already considered the question and have reached a reasonable and acceptable conclusion. This is a good answer, but also a huge risk because it works only if the shirt is not brand new.

After I run through these possible answers in a matter of miliseconds, I choose the one that best fits the situation. Like I said, I’m usually very good at this.

About six weeks after Tater was born, I was sitting in a recliner in our living room reading a book while Mrs. Happy was getting ready for a Christmas party with some old coworkers. After a few minutes, she entered the living room with a flourish and asked, “So, do I look like I just had a baby?”

I could think of only three possible answers to this question: yes, no, and “You look beautiful.” I immediately discarded the “beautiful” answer as a transparent deflection. A transparent deflection is worse than a wrong answer in most cases. But before I could answer yes or no, I needed to figure out what she was really getting at. I thought of the possible outcomes:

  • me: Absolutely!
    she: Good. Then my stomach no longer looks like it’s housing a beach ball.
  • me: Absolutely!
    she: So I have the flabby, stretched-into-shapelessness physique of one who has recently given birth. Is that what you’re saying?
  • me: Absolutely not!
    she: Yes! I have regained my pre-pregnancy shape.
  • me: Absolutely not!
    she: So I still look like I have a whole person growing in my abdomen?

As I was trying to determine exactly what she needed to hear, three seconds elapsed. Truthfully, I thought she looked beautiful, but from her perspective I seemed to be crafting a diplomatic proclamation rather than declaring an obvious truth, which meant I thought she looked hideous.

For the record, the answer she was looking for was, “No, you don’t look like you just had a baby. You look fabulous.” But even knowing the right answer, I still get confused when I think about the question.

Gibberish

Earlier this evening, I was changing a dirty diaper on Tater. Mrs. Happy walked into the room, looked at him, and said, “Is he a sigh noo?” I thought for a moment she was inquiring whether he had joined a Psi Nu fraternity. When I asked her what in the world she was talking about, she explained that she only wondered if tonight’s episode of CSI was new or a rerun (“Is CSI new?”). I didn’t know, but I laughed anyway.

A new me

I can’t find the quote now, but I remember reading an essay by C.S. Lewis in which he explained how different people bring out different things in each other. No one behaves exactly the same way with everyone they encounter. In simple terms, applied to my own life, Mrs. Happy’s Curt is quite different from Jeff‘s Curt. I can see the phenomenon pretty clearly in groups of friends. For instance, my geek friend Rey reacts to me (funny, thoughtful, relishing debate) quite differently from how he reacts to MCF (joking, prodding, argumentative) and from how he reacts to Jerry (bantering, sarcastic, antagonistic). I react differently to each of them. When the four of us get together, we all get to see levels of personality in each other we would never encounter except in the group.

There have been people in my life who bring out the worst in me, and I in them. I don’t hang out with those people. Others tend to highlight the best parts of my personality. The most extreme example of this is my four-month-old son. Before I met him, I never knew I had such a seemingly infinite capacity for love. I would lay down my life for Mrs. Happy, but I would likely not have made such a sacrifice before I met her or when I first was getting to know her. On the other hand, I would have died protecting Tater even before he was born. He has also inspired an all-consuming love in his mother that has made me fall more deeply in love with her than ever before. Even strangers meet him and—I may be reading too much into their reactions, but maybe not—rediscover their sense of wonder and awe at the miracle of life. My son also sends me into fits of frustration the likes of which I have never experienced, not to mention fatigue, anxiety, compassion, and transcendent joy.

So far, my Tater is pretty much the same as a stranger’s Tater in that he behaves in exactly the same way no matter who’s around. He’s beginning to understand that individuals are different, though. As he learns, he’ll glean things from me and his mother and others, and grow into a progressively more complex personality of his own. I can’t wait to see it.

Off the road again

I read somewhere that camping brings couples and families closer together. Family camping outings turn into great memories almost invariably. Even people who can’t stand their families still look with fondness on the times they spent together sleeping in a tent and cooking hot dogs and marshmallows over a campfire. I know that one of the most enjoyable times Mrs. Happy and I have spent together happened in the hill country of Central Texas one Thanksgiving. Our wood froze, armadillos foraged in our food, and we wandered in the woods for two hours, not knowing how to get back to our camp site, but it is one of the highlights of our marriage so far.

Road trips can turn into the fondest of memories as well, but not invariably. A road trip is a calculated risk when your goal is to bond. A good road trip provides stories you can tell your grandkids; a bad one makes you want to never see your traveling companion(s) again. In my college days, I took a road trip with a friend of mine from northern Indiana to eastern Texas. Our car broke down in Arkansas, and we had to sleep in the car on the side of the road while my dad drove up to help us out. We talked, we bonded, and that experience was the highlight of our good friendship. In high school, I traveled with the band from Utah to California. A flu-like condition afflicted me, my companions irritated me, and the school vice principal who rode the bus with us seemed intent on making sure no one could have fun. Fortunately, I have forgotten most of the details of that time.

The drive Mrs. Happy and I took from Texas to New York five years ago was a shining example of how good a road trip can be. We talked, we laughed, we sang, we speculated, we saw the country, and we viewed hotels with the relish of newlyweds. That experience came during a time of hope and excitement and limitless possibilities. The trip from New York back to Texas was more difficult. It happened during a time of stress and uncertainty. It happened during a time when we had the sometimes overwhelming responsibility of caring for a three-month-old baby. It happened immediately after a five-day marathon of packing filled with irritability that bordered on rancor.

Even so, I would not trade that trip for anything. A good friend of ours accompanied us on the journey, providing us with an extra measure of good will and Tater with an extra set of comforting arms. We were able to stop in Missouri to visit some old friends we hadn’t seen in four years, whose kids treated us to a lifetime’s worth of affection even though they didn’t remember us. We met some wonderful people in hotels and restaurants along the way. We encountered some shady characters that provided us with hours of speculative humor even after they were gone. We stopped in North Texas and introduced Tater to some family who had not yet met him. And we got to show our friend our home-away-from-home-away-from-home.

Yeah. Road trips rule.

Home

It’s been a while since I last blogged. I’ve been quite busy packing, saying good-bye to some of the best friends I’ve ever had, packing until 2:00 a.m. some nights, taking care of a baby, packing until 3:00 a.m. some nights, tying up some personal business, taking care of a baby, loving my wife, packing from 2:00 p.m. until the moving van showed up 20 hours later, cleaning out the old apartment, and driving for five days half-way across the country (through ten states) from Long Island (New York) to Austin (Texas).

I thank God for the friends who gave us so much help in the days leading up to our departure. We’d still be packing if not for their timely arrival and their all-out, full-tilt, can’t-slow-down attitude. I also thank Him for the amazing amount of love and support we received from our church. Furthermore, I must thank Him for giving us the perfect baby, who slept for more than half of his time in the car, smiled and played contentedly for the rest of his time in the car, warmed the hearts of every waitress and and hotel clerk who saw him, and still managed to pretty much sleep through the nights in the hotels.

So now we’re safe and sound in Austin, the first city we called home together. I’m still rather addlepated from the flurry of activity I’ve experienced in the past few weeks, which is why I’m less than coherent right now. The moving van has not yet arrived with all my stuff, so I’m having to work on an unfamiliar computer. Someone told me a couple of weeks ago that this page does not display correctly on Internet Explorer 6, which is what 73% of you use, according to my statistics. For some reason, it seems to display correctly on the archive pages, but not on the front page. This is why I hate Microsoft. </rant>

Anyway, being that addlepated is one of my favorite words now, I’m still in no condition to blog. Let me just say that I love my wife, and I love my son. Whatever stress we go through together, at least we’re together. My home is wherever they are, so I didn’t leave my home in New York, or return to my home in Texas—I’ve been home this whole time, just in different locations.

Does the thought really count?

My friend MCF asks
some interesting questions
of his readers.
I don’t usually respond, but I enjoy reading what others have to say. This
week, however, one of his questions summoned a memory.
He asks:

What’s the absolute worst last-minute gift you’ve ever given someone, and
how do you feel about it today?

One Christmas during the days when my Happy Wife and I had not recognized
any feelings for each other beyond friendship, I struggled to find an appropriate
gift. I wanted to give her something both meaningful and practical. I finally
decided on a
small flashlight
that would easily fit into a purse or glove compartment
and keep her safe should she ever find herself stranded in the dark. It really
did seem like a good idea. I can’t imagine what went through her mind when
she removed its wrapping paper. I can tell you what went through my mind, though:
"Stupidstupidstupidstupidstupid!!!" I made a pathetic attempt to explain why
I thought it would be a good gift. I failed to convince even myself. I’ve given
her lots of amazing gifts, but none is as memorable to me as that stupid flashlight.

I’m glad I had that experience for two reasons. One, since she smiled and
thanked me, I knew she loved me and never doubted my affection for her even
in my disgraceful ineptitude. Two, it keeps me humble and makes me try harder
to come up with really good gifts.

Another of MCF’s questions that sparked a memory was this:

List as many prepositions as you’d like.

I’m reminded of the mythical grammatical injunction against ending sentences
with a preposition and a sentence I once read that ended with five consecutive
prepositions. It seems that a mother offered to read a story to her sick little
son, and he declined. The mother put the book away, and he said, "Mommy, what
did you put that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?"

All you need is love… and… um…

When we first moved to New York from Texas in 2000, my wife attended a nice
graduate school in a bad neighborhood. We had only one car, and one night I
was supposed
to pick her up after a class
that ended at 8:00 p.m. It was wintertime, so 8:00 p.m. was well past sundown
and she gave me strict instructions not be be late. I don’t always keep track
of time very well, so I developed a fool-proof plan: Watch 45 minutes of Who
Wants To Be
a Millionaire
, then leave home and be waiting for her when she left class.
Being
the absolute dork I sometimes am, I failed to take into account that WWTBAM begins
at 8:00 in New York and not 7:00 as it does in Texas. Mrs. Happy stood in
the
cold darkness of a bad neighborhood for 45 minutes, alone and afraid, waiting
for me to pick her up.

A few months later, before either of us had grown accustomed to life in the
big city, a friend of ours came to visit. He and I spent the day in Manhattan,
planning to meet up with my dearest after she got off work. She could have
arrived at Penn Station at either 4:20 or 5:20, depending on how quickly she
could catch a train after quitting time, and she was going to call our friend’s
cell phone and let us know when to meet her, so I thought. At 5:30, we realized
we had not heard from her so we went to Penn Station to see if she was there.
She had been there since 4:20 not knowing what to do with herself, alone and
a little afraid. She angrily told us that she would only have called if she
caught the later train
since
she had to rush to catch the early one. That made sense when I thought about
it.

A few months later, she was working at a school in a not-so-nice neighborhood.
One day she accidentally left the headlights on in her car and the battery
ran down. She was the last person to leave, so no one was around to give her
battery a boost. She called me at work and I rushed out the door. Night was
falling, and I knew from experience that she would not like being alone in
a bad neighborhood at night. I had visited this particular school a couple
of times, but I have no sense of direction and spent more than an hour trying
to find it, while she sat in her car alone and afraid watching the sky darken.

I apologized after each of these incidents. I truly felt bad for leaving my
wife in the lurch. I was just glad no real harm came to her. As we discussed
it later, though, she said, "Well, I guess this is just a character flaw you
have and I’m going to have to learn to live with it." Once that comment sunk
in, it disintegrated my self-esteem. These three separate incidents involved
three entirely unrelated mistakes on my part that all resulted in her feeling
alone and afraid. So my "flaw" was that I couldn’t be depended upon to keep
her safe. One of the most important things in my life is being a good husband,
which I’m absolutely not if my wife considers me undependable. Hurt feelings
on both our parts festered over the following weeks and culminated in a tear-inducing,
angry
argument
over
a
box
of Kleenex.

I thought of this as I read the first chapter of Love & Respect by Dr. Emerson
Eggerichs. So far, I’ve read only one chapter, but I wholeheartedly agree with
it. His points are basically these:

  • Women have a fundamental need for love from their husbands.
  • Men have a fundamental need for respect from their wives.
  • If a wife doesn’t feel loved, she reacts without respect.
  • If a husband doesn’t feel respected, he reacts without love.
  • Spouses must break that cycle, so that…
    • a wife respects even an unworthy husband
    • a husband loves even an unlovely wife

That’s what happened with us. When I failed to pick my wife up from school,
meet her at the train station, and revive her car in a timely manner, she felt
unloved. How hard is it, she thought, to look at a clock, use some common sense,
and find a school you’ve visited before? She didn’t think it consciously, but
deep down she probably felt like I must not love her as much as she loved me,
for she would never have made such stupid mistakes. When she commented on my
"character flaw," I inferred a foundational lack of respect. I didn’t know
how to deal with her if she had no respect for me.

We did eventually sort things out. Still, this book intrigues me. I’ll share
thoughts as I go along.