Episode 11/01/04: Barbie's Dream Housetree
Welcome back to Trading Spouses, the show designed to make you appreciate the drudgery of your everyday life with your everyday spouse. I'm Hepcat, and I won‘t even trade my Halloween candy, much less my husband. No, I’m content to take the sucky raisins along with the more desirable chocolate eyeballs. I'll leave the spouse-swapping to the television professionals. Or want-ad amateurs. Either way, I’ll be watching.
Barbie, All Grown Up
We open on a scene of the tranquil California coastline, complete with crashing waves, circling seagulls and sparkling white beaches. Expensive-looking homes with red tile roofs dot the coastal hills of Ladera, California, located in that hotbed of conservatism known to Californians as Orange County. Living the life of Riley is Colleen, the matriarch of the Verruto clan. She flat-out tell us that her life is perfect. "Christ has rewarded us," she confides, since she lives in a "nice house in a nice neighborhood." Dude, she is totally blessed. And she likes shopping, because everyone needs stuff and it makes her happy to, like, go out and get stuff.
What does this paragon of wisdom look like? You guessed right, she is a veritable Barbie in the flesh - that would be the older, bustier Barbie that had trouble standing steadily in her teeny high heels. Colleen is married to Ronnie, who works from home, but is rarely seen since he keeps the phone glued to his cheek, neck crooked at an odd angle. He works hard to keep up with the flurry of bills Colleen generates on a daily basis. I’m struck with a gift idea: how about putting a headset in Ronnie's stocking and saving him from crippling neck pain? Meanwhile, we learn that Ronnie is the owner of a company that manufactures an item vital to the RV industry. His presence, he tells us, is so urgently needed that he has slept on the floor of his home office for the past three years. No cuddling with the wifey for Ronnie. He will stop at nothing to keep those retired folks in their recreational vehicles and KOA campgrounds.
Next, we meet the Verruto offspring, who are in the kitchen giggling over mom's attempt to "cook" turkey sandwiches. She's not some gourmet chef, she tells us. Colleen and Ronnie have four children: R.J., 12; Alexis, 11; Anthony, 10; and Vinny, 6. Vinny, Colleen confesses, is naughty. As we watch him sass back to his mom, make a game out of burping coke, and run wild through the house only to end up hiding in the dryer, his naughtiness seems nigh on to snottybrattiness. We see Colleen driving the kids in the requisite SoCal mom vehicle (an SUV) attempting to reach the back seat to keep Vinny from jumping out the window. "Jesus is thinking, oh my gosh, what's wrong with my child?" she admonishes the junior Damien. Vinny seems unimpressed, but I'm momentarily bemused at the thought of Jesus having the presence of mind to avoid taking his own name in vain. He’s just that cool.
Fiddles and Farms and Cows, Oh My
When the fiddles start playing over a montage of cows and farm equipment, you know you're in Tennessee. A woman roars into view on her ATV. It’s Chrystal Norton, here to introduce us to her unique house, which she and her husband built themselves. They’re a do-it-yourself kind of family who raise their own vegetables and their own tobacco. Sadly, it is not the wacky variety, just a plain old field of leaves destined to become cancer sticks. As for the house, it is unique in many ways; from the outside, it looks rough-hewn like a log cabin; inside, the décor is pure redneck hunting lodge.
Chrystal’s husband Dave is the hunter responsible for the décor. He explains that hunting isn't just a hobby; it's his business, although he confesses that it's not much of a money-making profession. From the home videos shown of Dave on the job, Bambi had better head for the hills, because Dave's on a killin' spree. No bright orange hunting vests for the likes of Dave - his camouflage shirt is quite effective. On cheap videotape he looks like nothing less than a floating head with a rifle.
The Nortons have two children: Nikki, 15; and Ben, 10. Chrystal describes them as "yes ma'am and no ma'am" kids, "each and every time." Is this a regional practice, or are the Nortons living in a time warp? One thing is certain - they enjoy spending time together as a family, and aren't really looking for material things, just enough money to pay their bills.
I Love the Smell of Taxi in the Morning
It's 4:30 a.m., and Colleen is awake, coiffed and mascara-caked. She worries about the coffee situation on the other side. Will she have to go all Tammy Nakamura on the Tennesseeans? Ronnie pulls her aside to show a heartfelt letter of devotion he has composed for the occasion, then leaves her alone in the office to read it privately. While Ronnie weeps silently in the kitchen, his kids looking glumly on, Colleen reads the letter aloud for the camera. The Verrutos share an emotional goodbye next to the taxi waiting for Colleen in the pre-dawn darkness.
Chrystal spends her last moments cuddling with Ben, her youngest, who is visibly disturbed at the thought of his mother leaving. He offers her the comfort of Ruff Ruff, his stuffed puppy that he still sleeps with at night. Chrystal declines, but Ben sneaks away to make Ruff Ruff a secret stowaway in her luggage. Poor Ben. Poor brave, doomed Ben.
We hear the fathers’ opinions on the upcoming
swap trade. Dave doesn't know what is in store for him, so he doesn't know what to expect. Ronnie echoes the same predictable nonsense, but adds that he hopes the new mom will inject some discipline into his household. What's that saying? Be careful what you wish for. It might be used against you in an obvious snippet of foreshadowing.
Flowers and Wifebeaters
Chrystal has arrived at Long Beach airport, where Ronnie meets her in wealthy-but-casual athletic attire, complete with a white “wifebeater” and an overly orange tan. Laughing nervously, Chrystal recounts her first impression of Ronnie as "totally different." I sense there's an undercurrent here that I can't quite identify. Oh, don't worry. If there's a nasty thought in anyone's head, it will be exposed by the magic of FOX before long.
As Ronnie and Chrystal wind their way into the hills overlooking the ocean, we get a glimpse of giant homes in a picture-perfect neighborhood. Soon they pass through an iron gate, and the Verruto palace comes into view. The house is undeniably elegant and expensive looking - more like a miniature villa than a house, albeit a villa in beige-verging-on-olive-green stucco. The landscaping includes majestic potted plants arranged around a tiled fountain. It looks more like the entrance to an Embassy Suites hotel, but whatever. It’s probably just sour grapes on my part that I don’t like the house. I was never even in the running for that Nice House/Nice Life award.
We see the house through Chrystal’s eyes - several “sitting rooms” with leather furniture, a spacious kitchen, a backyard pool, a master bedroom complete with large screen television, a wall covered in frou-frou decorative crosses. So that’s how you earn a reward from the Almighty! And here the Nortons were tacking up the heads of God‘s creatures. Meanwhile, the Verruto kids have made a welcome sign, and Chrystal is enthusiastically hugged by her temporary progeny. She is a little startled at all the children milling around her, and tells us that she hopes they are all well-behaved. That’s it, keep the dream alive, Chrystal.
Chrystal is homesick, but keeps it together pretty well. That is, until opens her suitcase and finds Ruff Ruff - a stuffed toy so ancient he’s gone bald and is missing an eye, which is not as cute as it sounds. And frankly, it sounds disturbing. Chrystal’s worried about her son’s chances of making it through the week without his little Ruff Ruff
monstrosity friend. Poor Ben. Poor brave, doomed Ben.
Barbie Meets the Bambi Killer
First impressions count, so let's see what Dave and Colleen thought of each other. Dave: she's a Barbie who has never sullied her hands, much less *gasp* hunted. Colleen: he looks like Kid Rock. It's nice that they can put each other into their own cultural contexts.
As they drive to the Norton family homestead, Colleen continues to “impress” by emoting over the trees by the side of an ordinary-looking country road. The trees are so old, you see, and must have many stories to tell. She natters on about the sights, asking questions about the houses, the crops, and whether she is talking Dave’s ear off. Dave answers in noncommittal grunts. Colleen tells us that she’s impressed by Dave's hunting business. In an interview obviously conducted at the end of a long, bewildering day, Colleen relates that hunting is an interesting profession because “that’s, you know, so history.” Barely coherent, her eyelids flutter wearily; suddenly, she coughs into her hand and tells us she swallowed a bug. Dave’s end-of-the-day wrap-up is the tactful comment that Colleen seems to enjoy conversations.
After re-fluffing her hair using the car’s visor mirror, Colleen explores her new home. Instead of remarking on the unusual, hand-hewn look to the building, Colleen’s language circuit misfires, leaving her to utter repeatedly, “Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh.” The object of her goshes? Heads, many of them, staring glassily from their wall mounts. She approaches a head, unsure what variety of varmint is snarling for eternity. Dave tells her it’s a raccoon, adding that people think they are cute, but really they are vicious critters. Or maybe he hasn’t learned how to get on a raccoon’s good side; not killing them would be a start. Colleen is one of those folks who looks on the bright side of life, so she remarks on the raccoon’s straight incisors, ignoring the elongated, wickedly sharp canines on either side.
We glimpse even farther into Colleen’s head and come up empty handed when she tells us that the house is made entirely of *gasp* trees. She is trying to point out that the stairs and railings are rustically formed from tree trunks instead of machine-cut lumber, but she fails. Instead, she tells us the Nortons live in a “housetree.”
The Norton children are hiding under a blanket, but emerge from their nap to meet the new mom. Soon Nikki has let out a “yes, ma’am”, leaving Colleen dumbfounded, then appreciative. She compliments the teen on her politeness, and Nikki pops out a “you‘re welcome“ faster than you can take a cane to her behind. Well, it begs the question, doesn’t it?
Colleen is gently woken by Nikki, who says that Colleen is supposed to help them get ready for school. Colleen looks so tired she’s reeling (it’s probably the middle of the night back home in California) but gets up as asked. By the time she wanders downstairs, the Norton children are groomed, dressed, fed and look perfectly ready to catch the school bus. They have made “Miss Colleen” coffee, and Ben offers to cook her some eggs. Colleen marvels at the “self-efficient” Norton children, and cringes to think of how her own kids are treating their temporary mom.
Back in sunny California, Chrystal comes down the stairs to kid chaos. The biggest offender seems to be Vinny, who helpfully confesses that “I be wild and I never stop doing it.” Whatever “it” is, it seems to involve pea soup, a toilet plunger, and an enthusiastic 6-year-old. Chrystal’s primary complaint, though, is that Ronnie is not around to help corral his spawn. He’s already on the phone cutting deals to keep the RVs of America rolling, baby.
Chrystal loads them into the SUV and drives them to school, relying on the kids to give her directions. Sure, it’s a solid strategy with her own salt-of-the-earth progeny, but asking the wild child for help is a big mistake. At first, Alexis tries to give valid directions, but Vinny takes over, unashamedly sending Chrystal in the wrong direction several times. Eventually, Chrystal catches on and tells Vinny sharply to quit it, but he continues to try to guide her away from school with the tenacity of a school-hating Bart Simpson. He’s blond and has the spiky hair, too.
A for Effort
Colleen is shown an old cabin on the Norton property dating back to the 19th century, so it could have been inhabited by George Washington, she notes. Actually, Washington died just days before the start of the nineteenth century, but more importantly, he and Martha weren’t really the log cabin type of people. I digress. . .suffice to say that Dave tries many, many times to explain what a “breezeway” is to Colleen. When he’s broken it down to “no wall, no roof” she repeats what she has learned, and we sigh with relief. Not for long, though. She tells us privately that she was just going along with Dave’s craziness, but she couldn’t get a grasp on what Dave was getting at. “Do you know?” she asks the invisible producer, eyes wide with incomprehension.
Meanwhile, Chrystal is facing a challenge of her own - the invasion of Colleen’s sister, who lets herself in the house, finds Chrystal in the kitchen and asks her if she’s the hired help. Keeping her sunglasses on throughout the conversation, the invading relative questions Chrystal’s accent, noting how great it must be to come to such a big house in a great place. Her manner is overly-cheerful and disgustingly phony. And come on, how many grown women respond favorably to being told, “look at you, you’re so cute” in a condescending tone of voice? I’m surprised Chrystal didn’t go all Bambi-killer on her phony behind.
Amazingly, it gets worse, as Colleen’s mother-in-law also decides on an impromptu visit. The two emote over Chrystal’s pictures of her children, and Chrystal ventures quietly that she thinks Colleen will fall in love with Ben, who has a good heart. Sis gives Chrystal an odd neck hug and says that he would have to have a big heart to have such a super wife. You can see on Chrystal’s face these exact moments: first, she registers the insult; second, she notes that Sis hasn’t been listening enough to know Chrystal had been talking about her son, not her husband; and third, she just plain gives up. Chrystal extricates herself from the headlock, nods and without another word, leaves the room. Sis follows her down the hall, obliviously barking out one last question: “How long have you been married to Ben?”
But Chrystal’s day is not a total loss. After spending the afternoon cooking, she is rewarded by the sight of the Verruto kids enthusiastically gobbling up her chicken and dumplings. One child gushes that it’s like Christmas, and you can hear Alexis sending a fervent “thank you, Lord” heavenward. Even Ronnie pries himself away from his work long enough sit and eat with the family. Chrystal ruminates on Ronnie’s constant work, and is chafing to say something about it; ultimately, she decides to wait for the right moment.
The Kick in the Pants
The moms are told about the Trading Spouses twist: that they will be responsible for spending the other family’s $50,000. Colleen calls the twist “unfair,” and asks if her eye is twitching. “What she sees is not what she - that is - what is,” she sputters in outrage. Chrystal more sensibly hopes that Colleen does her best to get to know her family. She looks worried; she hasn’t actually met Colleen, but she has met a blood relative.
Colleen declines to go hunting on the grounds that she has found the perfect spot to laze around in the sunshine. Works for me. Dave suspects the truth: that she’s secretly not into hunting. Riding off on his ATV, he tells us huffily that hunting is about getting in touch with Nature or some such nonsense. Leave the gas-powered vehicle and rifles behind next time if you want me to buy that load of tripe, Mr. Venison.
Back in California, Chrystal delights the kids by announcing a trip to the beach. Ronnie is reluctant to leave his leather office chair for a ten-minute bathroom break, but somehow he is talked into going along. They head out, driving along Pacific Coast highway until they find a deserted stretch of sand. It’s an undeveloped, achingly beautiful stretch of coastline, and soon the kids are having a great time body surfing, collecting shells and sand crabs, poking at sea anemones in the tide pools. Chrystal is right there with them, enjoying the day and exclaiming over the kids’ discoveries.
Ronnie sits alone in a beach chair, looking resentful to be away from his phone. He tells us that it’s a daily struggle to keep his company above water, and seems to have the attitude that every second away from his computer is time wasted. If it were me, that would make me play that much harder, but Ronnie cannot bring himself to relax. Soon, he cuts the day short and loads the kids back into the SUV, making business calls on his cell phone for the entire trip home. Time spent with the kids? Minimal to none.
Barbie and Ben
There’s trouble in Tennessee, as it’s becoming glaringly obvious that Colleen and Ben aren’t bonding at all. Perhaps it was the boredom on Colleen’s face as she sat in on Ben’s fiddle lesson, or perhaps it was her choice to chop lettuce instead of ripping it - but Ben is not accepting any Advanced Mom Substitutes (AMS). In his quiet way, he seems especially incensed about the lettuce incident, which is NOT how his mother would have made a salad. His older sister puts it plainly - he’s a momma’s boy.
Colleen admits that the situation hurts her feelings. I will give her credit for trying, somewhat, to get Ben to talk, but ultimately she dismisses Ben for missing his mommy too much. It’s only a week of neglect, she says with a shrug. He’s fine.
Tonight on Dr. Chrystal. . .
It‘s a fact: the Verruto kids are a pack of wild animals. Vinny spends the evening hanging from the handle of the fridge, climbing onto tables and smothering the dog. Chrystal dives in to get the kids under control, but inwardly she is wondering why Ronnie is absent. Do the kids just run wild every night, while Ronnie slaves away in his office? She’s ready to take Ronnie to task for not delivering the smackdown.
After the kids are in bed, Chrystal corners Ronnie and advises him not to let the children run roughshod over him. Ronnie replies that his wife does not like to hear a man raise his voice. Under Chrystal‘s gentle prodding, the conversation turns from controlling the kidlumps to an emotional outpour from Ronnie. He is under tremendous pressure to keep up with the $7,000 mortgage payment, the $2,000 monthly grocery bill, not to mention the hefty private school bills. Chrystal looks uncomfortable at the tears, but presses on with her message - you’ll be sorry if you don’t spend time with your family NOW. Ronnie thinks about his obligations and continues to weep. I don’t know whether to feel sympathetic or just shake him screaming the word, “budget!”
Vinny gets vicious and stabs the lawn, while Nikki follows Colleen‘s hair and makeup advice. The families read their money letters. Each strikes the other family’s name from the Christmas card list, or so we‘re led to believe.
I say the lawn had it coming. email@example.com