Excerpt: 'Practically Perfect in Every Way' In an effort to perfect herself, Jennifer Niesslein decides to follow the advice of several professional advice-givers, and the results are alternatingly hilarious and head-scratching.
NPR logo Excerpt: 'Practically Perfect in Every Way'

Excerpt: 'Practically Perfect in Every Way'


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Are you ready for the porch swing ride of your life?" I ask Caleb, my five-year-old son. We're killing time before dinner.

He nods and scrambles up onto the swing with me. "I'm holding on to the side," he tells me before I can ask him. "I'm crisscross-applesauce."

I swing back and catch the ground with my feet. My sandals slide a little as I push the swing, lopsided with his weight, up toward the railing as far as it can go. "Seriously, Caleb," I say. "Are you ready for the porch swing ride of your life?"

"Yes! Yes! I am ready for the porch swing ride of your life!" he shrieks. "Daddy, look at us!"

Brandon's carrying the Styrofoam boxes of tonight's takeout up the stairs. He gives Caleb a thumbs-up. I lift my feet, and Caleb and I whoosh through the sticky summer air.

It sounds like good times, but I'm still obsessing about the recycling bin.

. . .

WE LIVE IN a neighborhood that's a planned unit development, which means that our houses are crammed close to one another and the roads are unspeakably narrow. The roads are so unspeakably narrow that the trash and recycling trucks can't get down them. So each Thursday morning, we neighbors drag our trash cans and recycling bins down to the end of the street and each Thursday evening, we drag them back.

Brandon's a recycling enthusiast. We moved here last year and he endured a hardship, waiting a good nine months for the city to deliver our curbside recycling bins to us. When they came, I plucked two from the city truck: one for the bottles and cans, another for the paper. (Let it be noted that we also recycle plastic and other materials, but then it doesn't get picked up curbside.) The bins were red and shiny and ours.

One Friday, Brandon mentions that when he made the evening trip to get our bins the night before, there was only one red bin left. That, and an ugly, scuffed green one.

Oh, I thought generously, someone will realize their mistake in picking up an extra red bin. Because surely it was a mistake.

A week goes by. The ugly green bin is still down at the end of the road, unclaimed. Recycling day comes again. No one claims the green bin. No one offers up the second red one that is rightfully ours. The paper is mounting in our home. I am having an injustice overload.

I fire off a polite e-mail to all the neighbors on our street, asking them if they picked it up by accident. I see my next-door neighbor on her porch when I come back from grocery shopping. She calls to me that she doesn't have our recycling bin and I believe her. Through a scientific process of elimination, I narrow down the suspects.

My message goes unanswered for a few days, although I start checking e-mail compulsively. I become vocal with anyone who dares to listen. One day at work, Debie asks me, "Hey, any news about the recycling bin?" No, I reply darkly. One evening, Brandon walks into the kitchen and catches me, while I load the dishwasher, playacting the scene that will happen when the recycling bin thief is confronted. You had to have known that that wasn't your recycling bin, I snap. That nasty-ass green one is. My ire is contagious, and soon Brandon and I have, together, painted a devastating picture of the perpetrators' moral vacuum.

Finally, the suspicious neighbor e-mails back. "I suggest you take the green one and paint it red!" he writes. Hah. He adds that they don't have it. I don't believe him, but I don't know what to do: You cannot accuse someone of lying in this tiny neighborhood, even if you are 80 percent sure they are.

When I see the suspicious neighbors, I can barely look at them. I curse the fact that they are almost always home—guarding the recycling bin, I imagine. I just want my bin back. Plus, at this point, an apology. I will not be nice to them until I get one, I swear to God.

OH, IT'S FUNNY. But, oh ho, it's not. At the same time I'm stewing in my outrage, I'm also wondering, Isn't this a little petty? Shouldn't I be a better person than this?

It's not just the recycling bin, either. Here in early summer 2004, I'm plagued with what seem like a mess of unrelated questions regarding the details of my life.

Tripping over a herd of shoes in the kitchen, I wonder, Doesn't this mess seem a little, well, teenager-y? But I don't clean it up.

Or, grocery shopping with Caleb, I gaze at the checkout belt, rolling forth another shopper's purchases—fresh vegetables, an organic roaster chicken, and two tubs of no-fat yogurt—and I think, Now that's some wholesome goodness, before Caleb tugs on my sleeve and asks, "What if I picked out a candy bar?" I say go for it.

Or, watching TV one afternoon, I hear my lady Oprah tell a guest, "The first thing about fixing your life is honoring the truth about your life." To which I say out loud, "Honoring the truth about your life? Oprah, what the hell is that supposed to mean?" And then I wonder, Maybe this is what's wrong with me—that I'm so dismissive of things that I haven't even tried.

This time, though, is different. This will be my first nudge toward what will become a quest. As I remember it, sometime before five o'clock, it's as if Oprah turns her head to the camera. I'm sitting in the living room, iced tea in hand, and Oprah is not just looking into the camera, but looking at me—a longtime viewer, although not necessarily a big believer in self-help. Practically a self-help virgin, really. As I remember it, Oprah simply asks: "Are you happy?"

THE NEXT MORNING I feel vaguely dissatisfied, with an unspecified yearning located somewhere in my abdomen.

Am I happy? I ask myself this as I make Caleb some oatmeal. It is not something I ask myself often. It's the sort of question that, to me, is in the same league with "How are you?" The answer is always "Fine!" Or, if things are not going so well "Fine."

I'm not happy all the time or even a lot of the time. By happy, I mean that I don't feel as if I'm holding a warm puppy or enjoying a first kiss or dancing wildly to my favorite band at a bar. Or, even to take it down a notch or two, I don't feel as if I'm eating delicious soup or driv¬ ing home with the windows open at dusk in the summer. Mostly, I feel mildly harried, my emotional state just on the positive side of neutral. This life of mine makes me feel, if not happy, then lucky.

I take Caleb's bowl of oatmeal into the living room where he sits sorting his rubber lizards into families. "Would you not mind getting me a paper towel?" he asks.

"I would not mind at all," I tell him.

There are times when I'm on the negative side of neutral. I don't cry or feel despairing. It's more of an uncomfortable feeling, anxious and out of sorts. The best way I can describe it is this: My body is a glove and my hand—my mind—can't get itself into the glove right. As if one of the glove's fingers got twisted funny in the wash. On these days, I'm in a low-grade funk. Brandon is more likely to ask me if I'm okay. Caleb is more likely to find a mother who's mildly distracted and restless. This feeling can last weeks.

Is this a problem? Or is this normal?

I bring Caleb his paper towel and unload the dishwasher while Brandon gets Caleb dressed. I put some water on for tea. I putter around the house, sweep the kitchen floor, write some bills. I drink the tea. I take a shower; I sort my laundry and some of Caleb's into three piles on the bedroom carpet. I listen to Caleb and Brandon gathering stuff to go on a reptile hunt, an activity from which I am mercifully excluded. I make the bed and stretch out on it, belly down. I am going to think about my happiness.

I have not done this much navel-gazing since I was in high school, when I would sit on my bed, play solitaire, and listen to tapes. We were once so close to heaven, the band They Might Be Giants would sing, Peter came out and gave us medals, declaring us the nicest of the daaamned.

That struck me as a good, modest thing to hope for, being the nicest of the damned. I thought then—and think now—that you cannot expect life to go wonderfully. Terrible things might not be happening now...but they will happen. Probably to you. Your job is to accept that and live a nice life anyway.

I roll onto my back, in the pose of someone deep in thought. Do people generally feel like this? Or am I wrong? I think of Oprah Winfrey and all her sincerity, her constant striving to change the populace. Oprah does not see bad things happening as inevitable. Last year, she started talking about how to "live your best life." I see the appeal: It's a lovely idea to think that there are all sorts of versions of your life available to you, if only circumstances were different. For example, if I had stayed with one college boyfriend, we could probably both be unemployed potheads with serious fidelity issues, whiling away the time by coming up with ways to make psychedelic drugs out of common grocery items. Or if I had bought that lottery ticket, I could have been the big winner, leading to all sorts of unforeseen events. Or, if I had a different upbringing, I might have become any number of things—an identity thief, a tightrope walker, someone who would consent to be somebody's third wife. I shudder.

Oprah doesn't work on the past much anymore; she trucks precious little in regret. But, the idea of living your best life is the same: If we consciously make decisions, our future is ours for the picking. If I made different decisions, would I lose the ill-fitting-glove feeling? If I changed, could I be happier? Could I be a better person?

I zero in on the clock. It's noon. Downstairs the front door opens. Caleb yells up the stairs, "Come see the salamander we caught!"

"Okay," I call. I do a quick happiness check before I leave the room, the quilt now rumpled, the laundry in still-life on the floor. Eh. I'm just fine.

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