What A Bad Jason Isbell Concert Taught Me About Marriage

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

Spouses have many ways of boring each other. My wife's tool of choice this Valentine's Day week was Jason Isbell. Isbell is an alt country/rock singer from Muscle Shoals. My wife loves him, has all his albums, and follows him on Twitter, where, I'm informed, he is a laugh riot.

I don't follow Jason Isbell on Twitter and I haven't listened to much of his music, largely because the few snippets I've heard have make me shrug and want to listen to something else. But I like his unexpectedly homoerotic duet with John Paul White on the Alabama cover "Old Flames," and my wife generally has good taste in music. Maybe, I thought, I was missing something.

I wasn't missing anything. At all.

Admittedly, Isbell was better than the neutered, sub-Nick Drake, sub-John Denver, sodden sack full of clichés singer-songwriter opening act, but that is damning, quartering, and stomping with faint praise. Watching Isbell's five-piece, I felt like I'd mistakenly stumbled upon some sad, parodic performance art piece about the death of rock. The bassist had on a suit and a ridiculous retro-hat; he looked like a conservative news commentator trying to imitate Sonny Boy Williamson. The drummer had a silly hat too, and banged away with the womp! womp! womp! here-comes-the-beat-womp! lack of subtlety I've come to expect from alt country drummers. The songs were hookless, twangy jam-band mush; a John Cougar Mellancamp anthem would have been a relief. I'll admit that Isbell's between-song patter was entertaining enough, but really the only true moment of enjoyment I got in the whole three hours plus was when he looked out in the audience and declared, in the immortal words of every tired road band ever, "Are you feeling good tonight, Chicago!" The crowd did its dutiful crowd thing and hooted and hollered, but when I looked over at my wife she was notably not joining in.

"What's wrong?" I asked, vaguely hopeful that she too was bored and we could leave now and never come back, like Golem in The Lord of the Rings, though maybe with fewer dead fish. "Do you not like the show?"

She looked at me over her glasses, as she does. "I like the show," she said. "But I'm not a performing seal."

That was cathartic, but not, alas, a release from my ordeal, so I settled back in my seat, tried to pretend my foot wanted to tap, and amused myself with a montage of other moments of my wife being intransigent. Maybe because we were coming up on Valentine's Day (which my wife hates), I started thinking about our marriage proposal.

This was some 15 years back now; we'd been together a couple of years and had obviously settled in for the duration. We'd just heard, coincidentally, that a married couple we knew was having trouble (they eventually divorced), and we chatted about that a little while we drove down to spend the evening at my wife's parents house. When we got there, my wife had a headache. She was looking for Advil, and I was in the bathroom with her looking for some other nostrum; subsequent events rather erased the specifics.

Anyway, my wife found the Advil, and then closed the door and said, "I've decided we should get married."

"Uh," I said, looking about the tiny bathroom, and noticing especially the door beyond which, not very far away at all, her parents were waiting, oblivious but still, more of a presence than I was altogether comfortable with.

"Urgh. Maybe we could talk about this later?"

"Sure," she said. "As long as you say 'yes.'"

As I was ready to leave both the bathroom and this exceedingly awkward conversation, I did in fact say "yes." And I have never regretted it. Except possibly at the Jason Isbell concert.

Your wedding proposal is supposed to be a highlight of sweeping romantic affection; your wife's parents' bathroom is not a fitting backdrop. Similarly, a Valentine's Day week night out, sans kid, should presumably be filled with moonlight and wine (we ate bland pasta at the Corner Bakery because we had stalled too long and couldn't get a reservation anywhere better, if you must know).

The truth, though, is that a lot of marriage is boring and awkward and dreary, which is not really a surprise, since a lot of life is boring and awkward and dreary. The difference with marriage is that you have committed to being boring and awkward and dreary together, which functionally means that you get to bore and embarrass each other, rather than letting random strangers do it for you.

I think sometimes couples can get angry at each other for that; they think it's their spouse's fault that they're weary and irritated. In fact, though, irritation is the way of all flesh; the question is, if you're going to be annoyed for all of eternity, who do you want to be doing the annoying? That's part of the reason my wife was inspired to propose (in the bathroom) after we'd been talking about our friends who were on their way to divorce. The calculus isn't so much, "this is the person who will make me happy forever," as it is, "this is the person who I would like to have irritate me, as long as I am going to be irritated." Witnessing someone else's unhappiness clarifies who you, yourself, would like to be unhappy with.

The Jason Isbell concert did eventually end. Soon it too will fade to a bleak, tuneless memory, enlivened only by my wife refusing to clap.

My valentine, my irritant, may I be bored and annoyed with you forever; though I will never be bored with you.


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