Small Stuff

by Jake Halpern

About two years ago, my wife and I bought a new SUV. We wanted a durable family car that could handle the New England winters and, just as important, handle our two sons. At ages 9 and 11, they’re by their nature young Visigoths, who tend to punch, muddy and destroy anything they get their hands on.

After we bought the car, I puffed up my chest and gave a big dad speech about not destroying the interior. We implemented some rules, the kind of silly edicts that always are gradually forgotten, such as no food in the back seat—and no juice. Just water.

Then one day my younger son spilled a few drops of water on the back seat, and the gray cloth immediately DARKENED?. When the water dried, the stain remained. I tried to remove it—I ordered every cleaning product available—but the marks were permanent. My son had basically tattooed our back seat with his water bottle. More spills followed. Within two months, the seat looked like it belonged in a frat-house van on its way home from Daytona Beach.

My wife told me not to sweat it. But every time I saw the stains, they bugged me. Who the hell sells a family car with back seats that can’t take water? Water! Then I scolded myself. This was a trivial matter. During this same period, my stepmother got breast cancer. My mother-in-law had brain surgery. Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un blustered on about nuclear war. And I was fixated on car seats?

Around this time, I read about a study from Oregon State University, which found that older men who obsessed about everyday annoyances tended to die sooner than those who didn’t. This was the kicker. Apparently my stained seats were diminishing not just my car’s resale value but perhaps my lifespan.

Then I came upon another academic paper, “The Peculiar Longevity of Things Not So Bad.” The gist is that when really serious things happen, we suffer, but then we adapt and recover. We visit a doctor. We take medicine. We do some soul-searching. Lesser injuries, by contrast, linger because it seems like they ought to be ignored. A grievance over a stained car seat shouldn’t matter, yet by making this tacit judgment and doing nothing to resolve the problem, I was extending its life.

So, resolving to put my obsession to rest, I called the car manufacturer—which was no help whatsoever. The customer service agent told me that HE/SHE had never heard about this issue. I received a form letter, assuring me that I mattered very much as a customer.

That, I figured, was that—until one day, not long ago, I opened the car and saw that my sons were guzzling water and dripping it so profusely that they had now stained most of the seat. They had ruined it so completely, and so uniformly, that they had begun to fix the problem.

Soon the back seat would be entirely stain-colored, a kind of washed-out gray, and not entirely unattractive. It would take some time, a year or two of reckless, sloppy drinking—perhaps a water balloon or two—but the problem would be gone. Then, at long last, I could worry about things that mattered.


Mr. Halpern is a co-author, most recently, of the young adult novel “Nightfall” (Penguin, 2015).