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The Virtue of Neatness in the Midst of Life’s Hot Mess

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I am by nature a neat and orderly person. I have always been this way. Blame it on my genes. I was folding receiving blankets in the hospital nursery shortly after my birth. I feel a primal urge to straighten, neaten, organize, and tidy clutter of any kind—in my house, your house, even department store dressing rooms. I think my natural neatness is a charming facet of my personality. Not everyone agrees.

Occasionally, I feel the urge to tidy-up real live people. When I encounter young men wearing low-riding pants, for example, which display their underwear to grandmothers, nuns, and preschoolers alike, I feel a strong compulsion to tuck their shirts in, pull their pants up, tighten their belts, and generally boss them around a bit.

I don’t, of course. It would embarrass my children. Also, I might get shot or arrested, and that would interfere with a number of fun social outings I have planned with my friends. The point is: I think about doing it.

Just this week, while I was having my hair cut, a woman came in to the salon to apply for a job. Like every other Southern woman in the joint, I openly eavesdropped on her interview with the owner.

It didn’t go well. First of all, the woman was smacking a huge wad of gum when she walked in the door. She was really enjoying it, too. When she blew bubbles, it was apparent to all that she could use some dental work. I did not feel optimistic about her chances of being able to afford that, based on her salon interview.  She had chosen a T-shirt urging others to “get a life” to wear to the interview. Her hair was piled haphazardly on her head and secured with a chip clip. Clearly, she was not worried about first impressions.

I wouldn’t have hired her for anything. All those messy details are a sign from God. If this was the effort she expended for a job interview, I can’t imagine what she’d do on days when her kids are sick, her car won’t start, it’s raining so hard the kids are wearing life vests, and her husband is needling her last nerve.

It took every atom of self-control I’ve amassed in my life to remain under that cape in my salon chair with my mouth closed. I’m telling you—I could have changed her life if she’d solicited my counsel. However, she didn’t ask for my opinion, and I have nice manners, so I didn’t offer any pearls of wisdom. Not everyone has been taught to interview properly, you know. I was tempted to offer to mentor her myself, but, instead, I minded my own business. I’m not sure I made the right decision.

I could have changed her life—just by tidying her up. I don’t know why some people are so disparaging about neat freaks. Messy people are plenty excited when neat freaks like me know just where to find: the security code to silence a blaring alarm, a copy of the flood insurance when the water starts rising, batteries for the television remote right before the SEC championship game kicks off, a Living Will when there’s talk of pulling the plug, emergency cash to bail someone out of jail, and shotgun shells for . . . whatever needs shooting. My neatness obsession benefits my family and friends—even perfect strangers.

Invite me over to vent about your cheating husband, and I’ll advise you AND organize your kitchen spices. When I am worried, I clean out my bedroom closet. It gives me a sense of control over something in my life, albeit a small thing. Try it. There is nothing like instant gratification to give your brain a tiny adrenaline rush of satisfaction; it’s the same feeling you get when you pop a chocolate truffle in your mouth.

I believe that we are who we are from birth. I come down on the side of nature in the nature v. nurture debate. I think the “nurture” part is just what well-mannered humans do to manage our natural tendencies to resolve our differences by bonking each other on the head. Nevertheless, DNA is no excuse for bad behavior.

Unfortunately, I live with three teenagers who did not inherit my neat-freak trait. I have tried to overcome Mother Nature’s hardwiring with a variety of time-tested social conditioning tools—fussing, nagging, yelling, begging, bartering, cajoling, and bribing—with little success.

As a result, we have a volatile mix living under one roof: messy kids and a neat-freak mom. Nothing good comes from that. Every day, when I wake up and wade through the detritus of my children’s rooms where half-eaten sandwiches, empty water bottles, candy wrappers, dirty socks, cell phone chargers, smelly shoes, hair ties, athletic equipment, musical instruments, half-finished homework assignments, and other items, which do not belong on the floor but seem to end up there on a regular basis anyway, it infuriates me anew.

The whole neatness conversation makes me want to take to my bed with a cold cloth on my forehead. Life doesn’t have to be this messy. Sadly, it usually is—literally and metaphorically.

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Silk Stockings and Hot-Pink Gloves

 

One morning this week I dressed hurriedly, pressed for time, as always. I took one shortcut after another with my morning routine. My goal was simple: I wanted to look professional and at least marginally attractive. This gets harder and more time-consuming every year. I can no longer shower, slap on some lipstick and dark sunglasses, and go with a clean, fresh-faced look. If I forgo the make-up, I spend the entire day fielding questions about my health. People with skin as pale as mine look like we’re going to keel over at any moment without a touch of blush. If I omit concealer, I look like I’m coming down with malaria. I’m not exaggerating.

I miss the days of hour-long bubble baths, experimenting with make-up and hairstyles, and the anticipation of date night. Remember that feeling? By the time I finally walked out the door for the evening, I’d leave behind a pile of discarded outfits I’d tried on before selecting the right one for my mood. That was two sizes ago. Those clothes look like tiny hobbit clothes to me now.

After my kids were born, I considered myself good-to-go if I had on a shirt without spit-up on it—or worse—and I put on the first items I touched when I opened my drawers. On the rare nights when we could afford a babysitter, I dressed quickly. No way would I waste a second of babysitter time primping!

This week I stood in my closet at 6:15 AM dressing for a noon out-of-town speaking event. I had just enough time to finish my morning chores and toss something in the slow cooker for dinner before firing up my GPS. There was no time for waffling about cute outfits.

Breakfast was ready, and I’d packed my kids’ lunches and threatened them with the loss of something precious to them if they didn’t get up immediately and get ready for school. I’d barked out the daily reminders about homework, permission slips, and after-school activities before showering and heading to my closet to ferret out some mythical outfit that would somehow make me look tall, slim, and worth my speaking fee.

Dropping the towel to the floor, I wiggled into no-line panties and began the arduous task of smoothing stockings over my legs with fingers in desperate need of a manicure. I rarely bother with a manicure anymore. What’s the point? It never lasts. My hands are constantly working—dishes, laundry, flowers, and cleaning solutions. It’s a waste of money.

You can guess what happened. I barely got my stockings past one painted toe before snagging them with my rough fingers. Hopping on one foot, peering down over my dollar store reading glasses, and cursing like a sailor, I flung the ruined tights to the floor and opened another package to begin the whole wiggly, sweaty process all over again.

I got the second pair up over my hips—no small feat—before poking a hole in my panty hose that traveled all the way up my calf at the speed of light, blossomed behind one knee, and finally petered out at my control-top waistband. Like a volcano that has been simmering for weeks, I immediately erupted with more colorful language. I have a big vocabulary, and I’m oddly creative when I swear, so I was colorful in several languages.

Then I sat on my closet floor to fume and contemplate my options. It was too early to drink. I’m not an alcoholic. Yet. I was out of new stockings, but I had older stockings shoved in the back of the drawer. The colors were a little dated, but I was no longer aiming for perfection.

I remembered an almost-forgotten piece of Southern lady lore: you’re supposed to wear gloves to smooth on stockings. No snags! I felt like patting myself on the back for remembering that tidbit, and I immediately began rummaging around in my lingerie drawer for gloves.

Of course, I couldn’t find any white gloves. I don’t even remember the last time I’ve seen my white gloves. I did find some hot-pink winter gloves. They were a bit fuzzy, certainly not as smooth as white, cotton, bell-ringing gloves, but they were better than nothing. They weren’t mittens. They had fingers. They would do. I slipped them on and lifted a foot to begin another panty-hose application process.

That’s when my husband opened the door to my closet to discuss some calendar question and got an eyeful of me in my early-morning glory: panties—nothing else—half-mast stockings, and hot-pink winter gloves.

He took his time looking. I could tell he had no clue what to say. He couldn’t figure out what little party was going on in my closet. He looked puzzled–like a toddler who stumbles upon his parents having sex and tries to process a totally alien visual. It wasn’t a Fifty Shades of Gray moment. Trust me.

“Do you need something?” I asked testily.

“Not really,” he said, still looking.

“Do you need help with . . . anything?” he asked delicately, obviously attempting to tiptoe around any hormonal mine fields.

“Nope,” I responded, “I need to finish getting dressed now.”

“Sure. No problem. Absolutely. Carry on,” he said, closing the door with a perfectly straight face and zero color commentary.

He’s a smart man. I really should give him more credit than I do. We’ve been married a long time. My husband knows when to keep his mouth shut. I think that’s an invaluable marital skill.

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Time’s Up! Graduation and Last-Minute Parenting

I wrote this brand-new essay for a fun reviewer at http://mrsmommybooknerd.blogspot.com/. If you’ve never read her reviews, I recommend them. She has some good ones! I am thrilled that Emily has agreed to review my new book, and today she graciously allowed me to post a guest spot on her blog called “Time’s Up!” I linked it to my Facebook fan page and to my Twitter account, but for those of you who are “blog only” readers, here it is in its entirety. Happy reading!

I’m out of time. My oldest child leaves for college soon. He’s ready, but I find myself lying in bed at 3 AM, staring at the clock on my bedside table, worrying about all the things I have forgotten to tell him, teach him, explain to him, or warn him about. Recently, I’ve leapt out of bed in the middle of the night and flown down the stairs to impart words of wisdom that simply cannot wait until dawn.

“Sweetie? Are you awake?” I ask, after tiptoeing into my son’s bedroom like a jewelry thief, looming over the side of the bed like a stalker fan, and poking him sharply in the side until he acknowledges my presence.

“Barely. What do you want this time, Mom?” he asks in a resigned voice, peeling back one hairy eyeball, and staring at me bleary-eyed with fatigue.

“Promise me you will not accept any credit card offers, okay? Credit card companies prey on college kids. You could rack up thousands of dollars of debt!” I explain in an urgent tone of voice, gesticulating wildly with my hands to punctuate every word, increasing my volume and becoming more worked up with each second.

“Um. Okay, mom. I’ve got your card for emergencies, so we’re good,” he reassures me, rolling over so I have to move to the other side of the bed to maintain eye contact.

“You could end up with a bad credit score! You wouldn’t be able to buy your own home one day!” I warn, not fully convinced I have his undivided attention.

“Mom, could we worry about buying my first home later? I have a history test in three hours for HIGH SCHOOL. Okay?”

“Sure, sure! Go back to sleep, honey. I just thought since you were awake, we could talk,” I respond, defensively.

A few minutes tick by. I remain frozen by my son’s bed, unable to move, my hands hovering over his body, which is now twice the size of my own, praying silently a sort of desperate litany to God, fate, Mother Nature, the lottery, and anything and anyone else who might listen.

“Are you going to stand there much longer, Mom?” my son asks in a dry voice, without opening his eyes.

“’Cause I have to say it: you’re kind of creeping me out.”

“Nope! On my way upstairs right now!” I reply, a trifle huffily.

“Good deal. See you in the morning, Mom.”

“’Nightloveyousomuch, son.”

“Loveyoutoo,” he mumbles in return.

Lately, every time we’re alone in an enclosed space—the kitchen, an elevator, the car–for more than five minutes, I find myself talking to him in rapid-fire, staccato syntax as if I’m a drill sergeant, and I’ve been forced to send him to the front lines for hand-to-hand combat. I can’t seem to stop preaching mini-sermons, making dire predictions, or offering dangerous hypothetical scenarios for him to figure out while he’s still geographically close to me so we can talk through the options.

Like the sergeant, I feel it’s my job to keep this boy safe. I know how many dangers and temptations lurk just around the corner for him. Like all eighteen-year-olds, he is oblivious and clearly thinks he is immortal. He’s poised on the starting block, grinning from ear-to-ear, out of his mind with excitement.

My heart races when I think of setting my child free, unchaperoned and curfew-less into the world. I feel like I’m throwing him off a pier into the deep end of the ocean with only his iPhone, a debit card, a high school diploma, and some monogrammed towels to help him on his way.

He’s bound to hit some white water. Everybody does. There are going to be treacherous currents, vicious undertow, barges that appear out of nowhere, hurricanes, whirlpools, sharks, and other predators. And that’s just the college years!

I’m worried about all the pitfalls I haven’t pointed out: pyramid schemes, cheating spouses, door-to-door solicitors, the importance of separating the whites and darks when he does laundry, and remembering to text his younger brother, the kid who used to hold on to him when he was dropped off in the school carpool line and say, “Don’t go to school without me! I’ll miss you too much.”

I’ve covered everything I can think of: good grades, safe sex, binge drinking, illegal drugs, texting and driving, and the importance of choosing friends wisely. He’s going to make some whopping mistakes. I know that. I just don’t want them to be split-second decisions that result in eighteen years of child support payments or an interstate pile-up.

He’s heard it all before. He knows the lectures by heart, and he can repeat them with me in a singsong voice. Wear your seatbelt. Mind your manners. Take your vitamins. Don’t text and drive. Go to class. Do your homework. Write thank-you notes. Call your grandparents. Be a gentleman.

“I know, Mom, You’ve told me a thousand times already,” he says.

“Yeah,” I nod.

Is it enough? Does he hear my voice in his head? Will it cause him to pause, think twice, and reconsider before bungee jumping off a bridge on a college dare or eloping with the first girl he falls in love with? When my teenagers were still in single digits, they were more afraid of me than God Almighty. That was a good thing. Back then, that was enough.

“You have to quit trying to cram everything into my head, Mom!” he begged me this week. “I’m going to college, not outer space. You’re going to see me again. I don’t have any money of my own.”

True. That’s one of my jobs as the mother of teenagers: I am a slightly overweight, farsighted, menopausal ATM machine. I am also a: short order cook, chauffeur, laundress, coach, nurse, tutor, psychiatrist, spiritual advisor, and social secretary. Parenting teenagers requires flexibility. You have to be able to clean up vomit, talk about condoms, cough up a small fortune in acne products, and love unconditionally and with fierce, illogical abandon. It also helps if you have a smart mouth and a sharp pen, in my experience. I have both in spades.

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Ask Melinda: Embarrassing Parents

Question: Why am I so embarrassing to my teenagers?

It is slightly possible that there really is something embarrassing about you. Do a quick check. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Do you know what your hair looks like in the back? I have observed that some individuals who have perfectly ordinary hair in the front have apparently never noticed the crazy person bird’s nest in back. Do you wear your bathrobe to drop off your kids at school? Do you borrow clothes from your teenage daughter that were clearly designed for adolescent girls—not grown-up women with love handles and muffin tops? Do you have a snorting, obnoxious laugh? How’s your breath? Any of these issues are potentially embarrassing for anyone to be around, not to mention teenagers, the most delicate orchids on the planet. Most likely, however, your perceived embarrassing existence is just that—a false perception on the part of your teenagers.

Here’s how I see it: Teenagers desperately want to fit in. Except in odd, rebellious moments of their own choosing—bright pink hairstreaks or radical clothing selection, for example–teens do not want to stand out from the pack. I don’t blame them one bit. Those packs of hostile teenagers look dangerous to me, too. I think teenagers fear that some of their moms’ far-sighted, budget-conscious, coffee breath boring shtick might just rub off on them if they’re not careful to keep at least an arm length between themselves and the women who carried them around in their very own uteri (that’s the plural; I looked it up) for nine months.

Bottom line: There’s not much you can do about embarrassing your kids, if all you are doing is breathing in and out. Speak politely to your teenagers’ friends, but stay in the background. You are not one of the guys or gals—don’t forget that. Try not to take their embarrassment personally. This is hard, I know. I’ve had my feelings hurt, too. Distribute the hugs and kisses in private. Remember that the entire relationship dynamic shifts if more than one teenager is in the room. Think pack mentality. Finally, be patient. Nobody stays a teenager forever. Odds are they’ll grow out of it eventually, or you’ll kill ‘em—one way or another, it’ll all work out.

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Shopping Online For Caskets

     While shopping online recently for items I could have easily purchased at a local discount store—if the store had offered to deliver them to my front door for free—I stumbled upon an online sale item that stupefied me. I stared at the screen for a full minute, horrified and fascinated at the same time. I am the mother of three teenagers, so I don’t shock easily. I can weather fender-benders, throw-up viruses, and gruesome sports injuries without panicking, but when I saw caskets for sale online at Cosco, I admit it temporarily scrambled my brain.

     Tell the truth: Did you know you could buy discount caskets online? When I discovered that, questions immediately began pushing and shoving their way to my frontal lobe and demanding answers. First of all, I wondered, who in the world buys caskets online? Isn’t that an item one usually purchases from a funeral home in a package deal—like senior portraits and wedding invitations? Now that I know there are more buying options for caskets than I ever imagined, I’m sure there is someone out there trying to sell me—and you—more casket than we really need. It’s a business like any other, I suppose, an honest way to make a buck.  All God’s children have to make a living.

     The second thing I wondered is: If I order a casket online, how will it be shipped? Will I get a knock on the door from the UPS man?

     “Sign here, Ma’am, I’ve got a casket for you.”

     What would that be like? I don’t mind telling you that the whole idea gives me the creeps.

     I can’t imagine that many people buy caskets in anticipation of their own demise. I guess maybe if you know the end is near (or you’re thinking of taking someone out in the near future), it could be helpful. It’s a practical purchase, I suppose, although not a gift I’d be comfortable giving, regardless of need.

     I am always on a budget, so maybe this is a topic I need to research more. I’m open-minded—even when I’m a little horrified. Are there coupons for caskets? Sale days? Is there a particular color that I could get a good deal on? I once attended a funeral for an LSU fan who chose a purple-and-gold casket. It had a tiger on the lid. I’m not making this up. I bet that was a custom job.

     I know responsible people pre-plan their funerals. It’s thoughtful. It helps the loved ones we leave behind. We should all go ahead and make some decisions. For instance, I want to be cremated, I think, although I’m still struggling with the whole burn-to-ashes aspect. I have several lovely antique vases that could hold my ashes. If I choose cremation, I avoid the whole casket selection issue altogether. Since I will have gone on to a better place, what difference can these minor earthly decisions possibly make?

     As a naturally bossy Southern woman, I like the idea of picking out my own hymns, readings, and music. I’m picky. There is no telling what my kids might choose if left to their own devices. They have a wicked sense of humor. “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead” comes to mind. Nothing would irritate me more than a tacky tombstone. I swear right now that I will return to haunt someone if my final resting place is marked with anything pink or heart-shaped.

     I will also be highly embarrassed if I look down from the pearly gates and see there isn’t enough food to feed my mourners, so I might go ahead and book the caterer now, although the head count is hard to pin down for a future event. I like to think my family and friends will actually be sad, so they probably won’t dive into the buffet. Then again, some distant relatives might turn out just for the spread. We know how to feed people at a funeral where I live in the South.

     There are a lot of variables when you plan a funeral down here. Funeral food has its own section in our cookbooks. It’s worth going to a funeral just to eat the consoling casseroles afterwards. I promise.  If I live to a ripe old age, my friends may be too old and frail to attend my service. Bummer. If I die during a big football week in the South, my kids better plan my memorial service after checking the kick-off times, or the turnout will be slim-pickings. That’s just the way things are in the Southeastern Conference. I’ve planned a few parties in my life. I know what I’m talking about.

     When contemplating my own funeral, I never before thought about buying the casket ahead of time—from the same store that sells tires, wrapping paper, and sunglasses. I had planned to buy my casket on an as-needed basis. However, I am always open to a bargain. I suspect caskets are a racket. Who cares if the lining is real silk or not? I think thousands of dollars are wasted on nonsense like that every day. Somehow, the purchase of a top-of-the-line casket feels like a testament to how much we loved the deceased family member. Ridiculous. My kids know I’m okay with a pine box or a Café du Monde coffee can. I’d rather they used that money for something that matters to the living—like a college fund deposit or making sure no one runs short on cheese straws, fried chicken, or pound cake at the luncheon in the church parish hall after my service.

     A final question: If I go ahead and buy the Cosco casket now—because it is a great deal and will be needed at some point in the (distant, I hope) future, what in the world will I do with it in the meantime? Where does one store a just-in-case coffin–in the basement with the extra toilet paper and bottled water? I’m feeling just fine today, thank you very much.

     A wonderful Southern storyteller, Kathryn Tucker Windham, kept a simple pine box for just such an occasion. She asked to be wrapped in her grandmother’s quilt, tucked in the pine box, and laid to rest to “I’ll Fly Away”—short and sweet. That’s exactly what happened when she died.  While she was alive and well, she stored her mother’s fine china in that box. Handy. I do like a woman who is prepared for emergencies. I have Band-Aids and Tylenol in my purse and batteries and canned food for hurricanes, so a small part of me says buying a casket ahead of time isn’t really that different. After all, I know where this parade is headed. I’m at peace with that. In the meantime, I’m having one heck of a good time.

   

 

 

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