February 14, 2005
A PERFECT VALENTINE
I saw my baby sitting there at the breakfast table
His hair a mess and he forgot to shave
And I wished that he would get up, make it all better
Stop drinking so much, learn how to behave
Then the radio was playing a Chuck Berry song
And he was looking at me asking what was wrong
I made a list of the things I could say
But he gave me a wink and it all went away, I told him
Hey I love you, you're perfect, don't ever change
Don't ever change
Amy Rigby. "Don't Ever Change"
I wonder if anybody has ever done a better job than Amy Rigby at capturing the inherent contradictions in a happy relationship, the tension between the first flush of romance and the daily irritations of sharing your life with somebody who is, ugh, really, really different from you.
When you stop to think about it, isn't the real appeal of romance not in the person you love, but in the way that person makes you feel about yourself? Isn't a good part of the thrill the fact that your new love hangs on your every word, and that your every word seems suddenly witty or profound? That your tired old stories about your childhood make you seem far more daring and adventurous than you thought you were? That he finds your little quirks and habits endearing and interesting? That she listens in fascination when you tell her about your master's thesis or your collection of Mad Magazines or your determination to ride every roller coaster in America? That you feel ten feet tall when you're with her?
Of course romance isn't the only way we can come by that sense of our own wonderfulness. Most of us get it from our mothers, who seem genetically programmed to find their own children prettier, more adorable, and more accomplished than any child who's ever lived. It's just that other kids, and much of the adult world, spend the next 20 years or so telling us that, in fact, our parents were besotted fools, and we're really pretty ordinary people at best, disgusting, pimply, geeky rejects at worst.
I suspect that after years of being beaten down at school, we don't just long for someone to say, "Hey, I love you, you're perfect, don't ever change." We NEED it, need someone to restore our belief in our own worth.
But it doesn't take long for the daily annoyances of shared lives to start undermining that feeling once again. He stops dressing up for her, bringing her flowers, and telling her how sweet she is, and instead, maybe, starts wondering aloud why dirty laundry is piling up, how she can spend that much time in the bathroom, and why she can't cook lasagne like his mother. She stops dressing up for him and hanging on his every word, and maybe starts wearing her favorite ratty flannel nightgown, interrupting him when he's telling his favorite story, and insisting that he enter the checks he writes in the checkbook. In all the bickering over toilet seats up or down, windows open or shut, thermostat up or down, dinner at Olive Garden or at McDonalds, you start losing the feeling of being the most special, valued person in the world. You start shrinking back down to your real height.
Or maybe even lower.
Because there's a betrayal involved here, a kind of bait-and-switch. After all, it wasn't just love you promised each other, but wide-eyed adoration, and dammit, you both want that back. But how can you give that once you've come to know each other far too well, warts, annoying habits, sure-fire buttons to push, and all?
I think Amy Rigby has the answer. She sees the daily annoyances as clearly as anybody, but she treats them as minor details. They're just little things the other person could do or stop doing, not because they reveal hideous character flaws but because these small changes would please you and make life together flow more smoothly. If you pick your battles, you can avoid warfare over things that don't truly matter.
She's saying that we can hold to "I love you, you're perfect, don't ever change" even while noting imperfections. She's just keeping the two in their correct proportions.
That, I think, is a lesson we all could use, with our true loves, our children, our friends and relations. We shouldn't ever allow ourselves to forget why we love them, what charms us about them, and why we are kinder/happier/more laidback people because we're fortunate enough to have them in our lives. Nor should we settle for just quietly remembering. We need to make a point of telling them. Often.
It IS possible to make somebody feel, if not ten feet tall, at least several inches higher -- even when you're asking them to please not leave their soggy towels on the bathroom floor. It seems to me that would be a better Valentine's gift that flowers and candy.
Though I wouldn't turn down really good chocolates.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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