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Peterson: Is the smiley face the key to perpetual happiness?

These days I don’t lead a particularly stressful life, and that can be a good thing.

I wake up and read or write, go to work, come home, read a little more, have dinner and watch some TV, then exhausted, go to sleep. I’m not sure where the exhaustion enters the picture, but I find myself dozing on the couch during TV programs.

Having spent much of my adult life living under stress, I have to say I kind of miss it. Not hugely, but there’s something to be said about the adrenaline rush when you’re balancing too many plates. The ringing in my ears is mostly abated to the point that I can hear the crickets at night.

But subconsciously I must be feeling the pull of stress. My good wife brought home a bright yellow ball with a smiley face on it, the kind of face that was popularized in the late 1960s, and I was immediately attracted to it. She called it a stress ball. I went along with it.

A lot of people have a problem with the smiley face, as in, “Wipe that smirk off your face,” or “What’s so funny?” or “You laughing at me?” You can find smiley faces – or sad, and everything in between – online to include in the text of messages to put into a graphic how you are feeling. I know about them. I don’t know how to use them, and I am fine with that.

A colon and a right parenthesis, :), make a quick, sideways smile that wasn’t stumbled upon until email and text messaging became popular. I grew up with typewriters, and it never dawned on me or my generation to use punctuation to make smiley faces, or sad faces if you use the left parenthesis, :(.

The smiley face was everywhere in the late 1960s, kind of standing in opposition to all of the turmoil of the time. I remember it only because of our family – all eight of us piled into the station wagon for what had to be a grueling five- to six-hour trip across Minnesota to a town in South Dakota where my cousin Mark was marrying Roxanne.

I can’t imagine under any circumstance piling six kids between the ages of 4 and 14 in any kind of automobile and driving for hours on end. Not with our lack of attention to the beauty of the central Minnesota countryside. No doubt we were not enthralled.

I remember the pain of much-shorter trips to my grandparents’ house in Barron, Wis. They were brutal drives, and my parents are saints for not killing us all. But to South Dakota? And back?

I don’t remember the wedding. I don’t remember the drive there and back; maybe we were drugged. I can’t imagine us staying the night in a motel. But I wasn’t scarred permanently. What I do remember, aside from South Dakota being extremely windy, was putting a quarter into a machine that dispensed trinkets.

What did I get but a smiley face on a white button. And I couldn’t have been happier. This must have been before an age when I was cynical and ironic.

This was my prize for traveling hundreds of miles with my too-large family in a too-small car, even if it was a station wagon. The trip must have been so maniacal that I have blotted it from my memory. Either that, or I was transfixed by the countryside and not my older brother and younger siblings.

The appropriate prize would have be a skull-and-crossbones button on a black background to match what had to be the mood of the drive.

But no, it was a smiley face, and all was right with the world. Even facing a hundreds-of-miles trip back home after the wedding. Maybe by then we were so exhausted that we slept. I can’t imagine that being the case, but it’s possible.

And now I have a bright yellow stress ball with a smiley face on it, and I am reminded of the irony of it all.

No matter how hard you squeeze the ball, the smile never goes away. No matter how many times you purposely bounce it on its face, the smile never goes away. This ball is always happy.

There’s a town in southeastern Wisconsin in the Kettle Moraine area, Eagle, that has a yellow water tower with a smiley face painted on it, and I have pictures to prove it. And I wonder what effect that perpetual sunny disposition has on the people of Eagle. Have the people become inured to the face smiling perpetually upon them, or is there a skip in their step and a friendly whistle always blowing?

I’m as cynical as the next guy, but this stress ball with its smiling face makes me smile – at least on the inside. The bouncing on the face, by the way, drives my good wife to distraction. She obviously doesn’t see the face. Or feel the emotional release of squeezing and releasing.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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