Where everybody knows you're lame

The low bar: Ordinary behavior doesn't earn you a prize

The low bar: Ordinary behavior doesn't earn you a prize

When Clint and I had been dating only a few months, I had a problem.  I had a condo full of furniture in Taos, New Mexico that I needed to haul back to Austin.  I called a couple of movers and was floored to hear that the price tag for getting it here was going to be thousands of dollars.  As a single mom, that did not seem like a responsible use of my funds.  But walking away from the furniture didn’t seem right, either.  Clint suggested we road trip it to Taos, rent a U-haul trailer there, load the furniture and haul it back ourselves over Labor Day weekend. It would be fun, he told me.  A little bit of work wrapped up in a road trip.  No big deal.

Clearly, this was a bigger sacrifice for him than for me.  First, even though it was Labor Day, he’d have to take an extra day off from work to make the whole trip work.  Second, he was bringing the brawn.  I mean, I could help to a certain degree, but he was the one who would be doing most of the heavy lifting.  Literally.  Finally, since he had experience hauling a trailer, it would fall to him to do all the driving on the way home.  So, my role was to ride shot-gun on a road trip with my ridiculously good looking boyfriend, then watch him do a lot of manly things all centered around helping me out.  I was cool with that.

Once we were in Taos and had loaded all the furniture we went out for lunch.  When we were done eating, I went to the restroom before we headed out.  When I got out of the restroom, our table had been cleared and Clint was gone.  That wasn’t like him.   I went out to the parking lot to look for him, thinking that maybe he went out to get some fresh air or was waiting in the car.  

Sure enough I found him.  But he wasn’t in the car.  Or even by the car.  He was under the car.  While I was in the restroom, someone had announced that there was a car in the parking lot with a flat tire.  It was ours.  So, without further ado, Clint went outside, rolled up his sleeves and got to work.  Because the spare was affixed to the underside of the car, this involved crawling under the car and lying on his back in the dirt parking lot.  And then it started to rain.

I tried my best to be helpful, but having never changed a tire in my life (and I consider that a point of pride) there wasn’t a lot I could do except keep him company with my charming personality and hand him the occasional tool (after he described what it looked like, since I am not really on a first name basis with many tools—other than “hammer” and my ex-husband). 

When he was all done with the tire and was wiping off his hands and brushing off his clothes, I thanked him for changing my tire.  And apologized to him for monopolizing his Labor Day weekend with my cross-country personal errands.   And complimented him for being in such an agreeable mood throughout the whole spontaneous mud bath in the parking lot.  He shrugged and grinned and said, “I like the low bar.”

He says that all the time.  That’s his self-effacing way of playing off my compliments.  He always makes out like whatever he did was no big deal, and that I’m super easy to please thanks to the years I spent in a relationship with someone who was a giant pain in the ass.  And he does have a point—not about his efforts being no big deal or my being super easy to please.  But the guy before him was a colossal pain.  So, while Clint’s selfless nature is objectively remarkable, it probably gets remarked on a lot more by me because it is off-the-charts great relative to what I was accustomed to. 

When I was with That Man, the low bar—I mean, the real low bar, not Clint’s modest characterization of his selfless style—seemed impossibly out of reach for him.  It was not uncommon for him to come unhinged at Barnes and Noble when a clerk told him that his annual membership card had expired and he needed to renew it in order to get the additional 10% discount, or to fly into a rage at the airport if there was a glitch in our travel plans. 

Running around after him apologizing to people for his behavior became almost a fulltime job.  One time—and I’m not making this up—when I went to apologize to a clerk at the camera store who had been verbally lacerated by That Man, the clerk beat me to the punch and apologized to me.  When I told him he was the one that was due an apology, he explained that he felt sorrier for me since I was married to him.  I realized he was right, so I accepted his apology.

It got to the point where meltdowns were so commonplace that keeping it together when there was a bump in the road of daily life became noteworthy.  One time I was pleasantly surprised when he didn’t unleash his wrath on the sandwich artist at Subway when the artist went all Jackson Pollock with the mustard when That Man had expressly told him he was a mustard minimalist.  Later, I reported the good news to my son Aaron who was then in college.  Aaron, who had seen plenty of this behavior, and had even been on the receiving end of some of it, did not seem impressed.

“Aaron, you know how he usually comes undone over stuff like that.  I mean, this time he didn’t—he kept it together.  That’s big,”  I explained, a little irked that I had to explain the obvious to him.

“Whatever, Mom.  I guess I don’t believe in rewarding normal behavior,” he told me.  “No one should get a prize for not coming unglued when his sandwich order gets screwed up.  You get jerk points awarded when you don’t manage to keep it together; but you don’t get points for good behavior when you simply handle things like a normal person.”

When Aaron put it like that, it was hard not to agree.

Which brings me to a conversation I had with my friend Charlotte the other night.  Charlotte has a problem with movies about people who end up doing what they should have been doing all along. 

“Say, there’s a guy who was a bank robber,” Charlotte explained.  “Then he turns over a new leaf.  He stops robbing banks, goes to college and becomes a social worker.  From that point forward, he spends his life helping people out.”

“Okay,” I said, wondering when she would get to the point.

“Well, I have a problem when they glorify that guy by making a movie about him.  You know,  ‘Gritty bank robber abandons his lawless ways and becomes a contributing member of society, selflessly dedicating his life to helping others.’  What about all the millions of people who were social workers all along—the ones who never went through a bank robber phase? Where’s their movie?”

Made sense to me.  The bank robber-turned-social worker is getting points because he stopped robbing banks—something he should have never done to begin with.  By making a movie about him, aren’t we essentially rewarding normal behavior?  Wasn’t he getting a movie simply because he finally cleared the low bar?

But Charlotte lost me when she took it one step farther.  “And what about the movie 127 Hours?  You know, the one where James Franco plays that guy who lost his arm because the rock fell on him while he was out hiking?” she asked.

“What about him?” I asked.

“He shouldn’t get a movie, either.  I mean, he went for a hike.  He was careless.  He didn’t tell anyone where he was going.  He didn’t bring his cell phone.  Then a big rock fell on his arm.  Why does he get a movie?”

“Because he had to cut his own arm off in order to survive?” I asked.

“But he would have never been in that situation if he had used a little common sense.  I mean, tell someone where you’re going.  And, hello!  Bring your cell phone,” she said.  “And it’s not like he got pinned by the rock while doing something heroic.  He wasn’t saving people from a burning building.  He went out for a walk.  He didn’t exercise ordinary caution.  Something bad happened.  He’s lucky to be alive—I’ll give you that.  But a movie?  Where’s the hook?”

I didn’t agree with Charlotte’s analysis when it came to the movie 127 Hours, but there was something about what she was saying that I could relate to.  It has long annoyed me when people assume that they are so interesting that even the minutia of their everyday lives is fascinating. 

The queen of attempting to pass off her daily routines as art is none other than Jewel.    

I hear the clock, it's six a.m..
I feel so far from where I've been.
I got my eggs I got my pancakestoo.
I got
mymaple syrup,
Everything but you.

Zzzzzz.  Oh!  Sorry.  I dozed off there for a second.  Because the only thing less interesting to me than my own morning routine is listening to someone else describe hers.  And that goes double if she sets it to folksy guitar music.

So, to sum up:: I propose a couple of new rules:  1. No prizes when people clear the low bar; and 2. No “art” about people’s every day routines.  But if my proposed new rules aren’t adopted, then I have a story idea I’d like to pitch:  It’s about a girl and her boyfriend who take a road trip, move some furniture, and get a flat tire along the way.  And if we make it into a movie, Jewel can totally do the soundtrack.   

Austin Photo Set: News_Christina Pesoli_the low bar_August 2011