For most of your formative years, you probably slept on a mattress that was basically a tarp stuffed with rags. And you slept just fine. In college, I could happily doze till noon atop the standard-issue dorm mattress, a plastic-coated beige slab that probably dated to the Eisenhower administration. Until age 21, it never occurred to me that a mattress should be anything but a buffer between your body and the floor. The popularity of the futon speaks to the mindset of college students—you expect so little of a mattress that you don’t even care if it moonlights as an entirely different piece of furniture.

But then you get a job and an apartment, and suddenly it seems like buying a real mattress is the grownup thing to do. Thus you’re ushered into the world of perpetual mattress discontent.

The biggest problem, as I see it, is that bedding preferences are hugely subjective, which renders reviews essentially useless. Some people hate every bed they’ve ever had, while others could happily sleep on a pile of broken glass. I have a friend from Maine who says that during his military training, he learned to saw a log in half lengthwise, tilt the two sides into a vee and sleep on that. Which he did, for two weeks. “It keeps you out of the mud,” he says cheerfully. Yes, but let me tell you about my problems with mattresses that are way too soft.

Eight years ago, Heather and I bought our first mattress. We learned that lying on a mattress in the store isn’t the same as sleeping on it, for our pillow-top mattress soon developed body-shaped dents on either side, bisected by a mountain range of stuffing where the pillow top formed a muffin top. Sometimes I would don crampons and climbing gear, scale the summit and bring news from east of the divide, the Valley of the Clock Radio Side.

We stuck with that monstrosity for two or three years, sleeping in our shallow graves and awaiting the day when we’d feel we’d gotten our money’s worth. When we finally steeled ourselves for another purchase, we at least knew to avoid the muffin top. This time we got the latest in cutting-edge slumber tech: memory foam, aka the waterbed of the new millennium.

Memory foam is superior to springs because the foam more evenly distributes your regret. And of that, we had plenty. Quicksand has more support than this mattress. They call it memory foam because you’ll never forget how much money you spent on a piece of foam.

At least with an inner-spring mattress, the sales guy can justify its price by saying, “Well, there are all those springs in there; they’re hand-pocketed and laser-calibrated, and each one is bench-tested for optimal body-weight diffraction across the entire surface spectrum.” But foam? They give it to you free in packages. It’s plastic and air. A memory foam mattress should cost $35, tops. Ours was more like $1,000, a sum that once again forced us to stick with it for three years to amortize our self-loathing.

Which brings us to our next mattress. I decided to surprise Heather for her birthday, so I bought another set without input from the other person who’d be sleeping on it. This is what’s known in the mattress game as the ol’ bad idea. About two weeks after I bought it, she declared, “I hate to say this, but I think I want a softer mattress.” Fortunately, the store offered a 100-day exchange period, and soon enough we were pulling the sheets over our third mattress in three months. Hopefully this one—the Beautyrest Greenwood Firm, if you’re interested—is here to stay. We’d better keep this sucker until it looks like it belongs in a motel in Saugus. By the time we get rid of this thing, I want it to be 90 percent skin and 10 percent dust mites. That’s my ambition.

While we’ve finally found a mattress that we like, I don’t feel much wiser about the process. I still couldn’t tell you why some mattresses cost $6,000, and I still don’t understand what a box spring does. I don’t know what happened to the mattress we returned, and I don’t know what a California king is, even though I think that’s what we have.

I did learn to buy established brands from established stores. Do buy an inner-spring Beautyrest from Mattress Firm; do not buy a foam International Dawn Elite from a place that occasionally features gun battles between the owner and would-be robbers (this actually happened and definitely dissuaded me from stopping by to ask about the warranty). And don’t spend too much money. Remember, you used to sleep just fine on a futon. You’ve probably had a great nap in a hammock. And if the Greenwood Firm doesn’t work out, I’m gonna saw a log in half and call it a night.

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