NO ORDINARY FRAME OF REFERENCE

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Psychologists call it the “hedonic treadmill,” the seemingly never-ending pursuit of goals and possessions that we think will make us truly and enduringly happy, if only we could attain them.

Having been bombarded all their lives with the messages that they deserve the best and most fulfilled lives, millions of Americans, and no doubt millions more people around the world, find themselves captives of the treadmill. Because no achievement, no acquisition, it seems, can do for them what they thought it would in terms of sustained contentment. The kick just doesn’t come, or if it does, it fades fast.

A whole new field of psychological study has bloomed in the past few decades to explore this disconnect between what we think we want and what actually makes us happy. Meanwhile, until the answers are clear, most of us just get back onto the treadmill in search of the next hit.

Megan Prenderville and Mike Harper of Red Bank work seven days a week at a combined nine jobs. She teaches CPR to medical professionals. It’s freelance work that consumes as many hours as she allows. Mike freelances too, as an illustrator; at the moment, he’s working on a children’s book for Scholastic Inc. He also puts in 15 hours a week at Lowe’s in Eatontown, mainly for health benefits he considers an exceptional bargain for his labors in the paint department. That’s three, but those are their side gigs. Together, Mike and Megan also share duties as self-employed picture framers, antiques sellers and vendors of old-timey fruit-crate labels.

Except for those hours when they slip into Brothers Pizza to decompress with what Megan calls “the four-o’clock guys” over beer and a couple of slices, they seem never to be idle. They might appear, in fact, to be chained to the treadmill.

And yet, you are unlikely to meet a couple with less desire for something other than what’s at hand. Because what’s at hand is what they want. The Ph.D.’s of happinessology should probably pay a visit.

In an apparently rare moment of relaxation on the deck of their home on Waverly Place, Mike sums up the secret to making life work. “Pretty much everything we like doing, we do constantly,” he says. That is, making art, framing art, selling art they love, in frames they build themselves.

“We’re not materialistic at all,” adds Megan. “We’re just happy doing what we’re doing, having enough to pay the bills and something to retire on.”

Well, not materialistic in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of way. Both Megan and Mike are big on antiques. Hence, the full-sized wooden phone booth in the front hall of their house. It stands opposite an old dentist’s chair, in which sits a mannequin from the former Steinbach’s department store (now the site of Garmany).

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Even there, though, is a tie-in to what they do to make money, and love doing. The vintage fruit-crate label business they run takes them weekly to the Monmouth Antique Shoppes on West Front Street, where they have a sales booth. This time of year, it also takes them every Sunday to the Farmer’s Market at the Galleria, where they’ve had a tent for several years. The labels they sell, acquired from dealers with large stocks dating back a century or more, are of course framed for sale. The couple’s picture-framing business, Frame to Please, is their main source of income.

Megan, who grew up in Middletown and has two adult children, has been a framer for about 22 years, and worked at a number of galleries in and around Red Bank—Chetkin, Art Forms. Mike, originally from Atlantic Highlands, sold art supplies at Colorest when it was based on Broad Street (it’s now on Newman Springs Road). He left for four years to travel the world as a photographer’s assistant and returned to the store in the early ‘90s. By then, Megan was the shop’s framer. When they met, Mike was on the floor selling supplies, and swore to Megan he’d never make frames. Soon, they were sneaking kisses in the frame room, and he was learning to make frames.

Megan left Colorest after just a couple of years to do the CPR work, but for years, she and Mike had a standing afternoon date on Tuesday afternoons, his day off, which they always spent shopping for antiques in town. Now, they take shifts working Tuesday afternoons at the antiques store selling their crate labels and items on behalf of other vendors who can’t be present.

A couple of years back, they decided to start their own framing business, with Megan’s proviso that she wouldn’t give up the CPR work because she enjoys it so much. Frame to Please, housed in their basement, is the result. It’s a well-organized shop with sample frame corners lining three walls and a small, shrine-like display where the proprietors tout work of local interest. When redbankgreen visited last week, the featured work was a collage by Red Bank painter Pinky. It depicted Mike and Megan in a somewhat cartoonish version of their basement shop. Of course, it was nicely framed.

Their home, like their schedules, is filled—in this case, with antiques and animals. There are two dogs, the fish in the pond Mike built next to the deck (complete with a fountain purchased on the cheap from a failed Red Bank retailer), more fish in an aquarium, two frogs, an 11-year-old eel, five conures (small parrots) that recently had babies, two parakeets and a guinea pig. “We’re definitely not bored,” says Megan.

For fun? They go to art shows, but rarely outside the Red Bank vicinity. “We’re kind of limited to how far we can go,” Megan says. She and Mike speak effusively about the pace of life and the quality of interactions they experience in Red Bank, one reason they don’t mind those days at the antiques store or Farmer’s Market when sales are slow. They also share a quiet tradition: every year, following the July Fourth fireworks, they take a six-pack of beer around the corner to a business on Broad Street, where they sit on the steps and just to watch the traffic inch its way out of town.

Of course, self-employment “can be scary sometimes,” Megan says, “like when the phone doesn’t ring and you’re checking the wires to make sure it’s plugged in.” But they put money aside for those times. Lately, business has been good, thanks to the depth of their contacts with artists and photographers, not to mention people they meet selling their labels.

“We look at it mostly as an adventure,” Mike says of their lives. “It’s great to have choices, where you say you’re going to try something, and then just give it a shot.”

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