Small Comforts: More Comments and Comic Pieces, by Tom Bodett, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 166 pages, $7.95 paper
The other day my gray mood turned a dark charcoal. It happened just the way Tom Bodett describes such things. My car broke down halfway to work, my husband eventually came with his car, I took off in it, after which it, too, broke down. We all have those days.
Next time my mood is dark charcoal, I'm going to remember to dust off my copy of Bodett's Small Comforts. It will remind me that I'm not alone in my miseries, and it will make me laugh.
Bodett—the man behind that cowboyish voice of the Motel 6 radio commercials—is first and foremost an essayist. He doesn't expect to dazzle us with insight. He hopes, instead, that "at least once during the reading you stop to think, 'Yeah, it's just like that.'"
Bodett puzzles over the little things in life—wood piles, old picture albums, dishwashing, dogs, his favorite chair, or his socks. "Forget about the chicken and the egg, how far is up, and where does the time go. Just tell me where the lids to all my trash cans went, and can I find my missing socks there too?"
Bodett recounts with humor his daily tribulations, his accomplishments, his failures. Take for instance his battle against static cling. Shunning "those little blue perfumed foam rubber things you throw in the drier," Bodett sought other remedies. "Now, static electricity isn't exactly house current," writes Bodett. "You can't just unplug it, you have to ground it out.…So I thought this grounding principle could be applied to the problem of static cling. I tied one end of a copper ground wire to a rivet on a pair of 501s and the other end to the drier's metal spinner. I started 'er up and in less than a minute found the clothes wound up with wire tighter than a hay bale."
Or consider his frustration with a pair of pretty expensive long johns—warm, durable, and comfortable, "but there was this tag in the back. It was made out of something just short of stainless steel." Bodett tore it out after the first wear. But "the tag had been sewn on with about two thousand stitches per inch, and although the tag was gone, the stitches remained. It provided all the comfort of a serrated knife sawing away at my fourth lumbar."
Now, I don't wear long johns, but I have a few turtle necks with those tags. Yeah, it's just like that (except they saw away at my neck).
Bodett is a guy who values a hard day's work, recalling with nostalgia his days at construction jobs: "I remember how dangerous it is and what working people put up with to make a living. Mostly I remember the pride that came with being that way."
Bodett also believes the good old generic American has an unsung heap of common sense. He is thus baffled at the warnings, bells, whistles, flashing lights, and signs that barrage us with every commodity we purchase. "NO SMOKING signs on self-serve gas pumps are the ultimate insult. Although there may be some individuals who don't understand the principles of octane, anyone who'd light up in a cloud of gas fumes would probably deserve everything he got. Mother Nature's cute little way of weeding out the bad apples."
If we'd just take a bit more responsibility for ourselves, Bodett figures, all we'd really need to follow is one single command—the one his third-grade teacher used to use a lot:
"Mr. Bodett," she'd snap.
"SHUT UP AND PAY ATTENTION!"
Bodett modestly denies any philosophical profundity. But Small Comforts is, in fact, chock full of wisdom.
In an essay that could be a foreword to In Pursuit, Charles Murray's new book on happiness and public policy, Bodett describes a malcontented and bigoted rich chap, a truly unhappy man, and contrasts him to a guy down on his luck, pushing a grocery cart that contains everything he owns. But the guy is happy, working at odd jobs for merchants as he shuffles down the street.
It's not a new notion. We all know money can't buy happiness. But Bodett manages to convey that message in such a heartfelt way, describing real people in action.
And his essay "Wow" captures in three pages something about the wonder of this world unrivaled by whole volumes of erudite tomes. Bodett lay in bed one early morning contemplating all the mundane tasks and annoyances the day would bring.
"As I was lying there brooding, I heard my child stir. He rolled over—I assume he opened his eyes—and said, 'wow.' Suddenly, I felt like a heel.
"With all my training to 'think good thoughts,' 'look on the bright side,' and 'take it a day at a time,' I woke up to a near-miserable world. This little boy who knows nothing of optimism woke up, saw he had a new day, and gave it his grandest praise.…
"It dawned on me that this innocent little child was at the place I wanted to be. To wake up in the morning, take a look at the world, and say 'wow' is probably about as close to contentment as a person can ever hope to get."
One final pearl of wisdom from Bodett, "If you want to go somewhere, you gotta get on the bus." A common enough piece of advice, but Bodett has a way of making the reader really believe it—and really want to climb aboard.
Book Review Editor Lynn Scarlett is also the research director of the Reason Foundation.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Yeah, It’s Just Like That".