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Advice for the imperfect Author Lisa Earle McLeod shares some insights on what it takes to be happy in this frantic world

She has laundry piled in her dining room.

She hates cleaning her bathroom.

She wears sweatpants more often than she'd like to admit.

And, oh yeah -- she sometimes hides out from her kids and husband in her home office.

Lisa Earle McLeod's life is far from perfect. Which means it probably looks a lot like yours and mine.

And yet, McLeod says, she's really, truly happy -- despite the craziness. She thinks the rest of us can be, too, even if we do have socks waiting to be matched and clutter all over the living room.

McLeod, a humor writer from Atlanta and Buffalo News columnist who laid claim to the crown of Erma Bombeck with her popular first book, "Forget Perfect," has produced a second book about letting go of the ideal of perfection and finding happiness in the midst of a crazy busy family-centered life. It's called "Finding Grace When You Can't Even Find Clean Underwear" (Jefferson Press, $23).

McLeod, married for 21 years and the mother of two, recently took a break from typing -- and dodging laundry piles -- to talk about her new book and the hectic, happy life she's living.

Q: What does "Finding Grace" mean to you?

A: It's about finding pleasure and joy inside of our crazy lives, and having the grace to laugh at the nutty behavior of humans.

Grace isn't something you find outside of yourself, it's a light you reveal from within. I hope that by helping people laugh, I can get them to reveal a little more of that light. Our challenge is not to control the chaos, but to learn to live happily amongst it.

I'm living proof that you can be happy even if you have laundry piled in your dining room.

Q: Betsy Bombeck, Erma's daughter, has said that you are "channeling" her mother. Did you grow up reading Erma Bombeck? Did you ever meet her?

A: Like so many writers, especially female writers, Erma was my idol. When I was in third grade I did a book report on "The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank." I got a C-minus, which wasn't unusual for me, since I was a "doesn't work up to potential, easily side-tracked"-type student. My teacher also sent a note home telling my parents I needed "more age-appropriate reading material."

I never met Erma, but like so many I feel like I came to know her through her writing. And the connection to her daughter was quite amazing. I was doing a speaking engagement and afterward an attractive redhead approached me saying, "My name is Betsy Bombeck. I've been waiting 10 years for someone to take the place of my mother. You're the first one who has ever come close, and you're just getting started."

My jaw dropped and I immediately burst into tears. I don't want to diminish the birth of my children or how important my husband is, but I have to say, it was one of the most significant moments of my entire life.

Q: Name five things you carry around in your purse, even though you don't have to.

A: An expired Subway coupon; a random phone number scribbled on the back of a grocery store receipt, I don't know whose number it is, but I'm sure I was supposed to call them; cheap sunglasses with a cracked frame; a card with a meditation printed on it that I swear I'm going to do one day; six gum wrappers.

Q: So how are you different from Erma Bombeck, in your view of the world -- and your own household? You are, after all, writing in the 21st century, about a different world than she lived in.

A: Erma was the first one to shine the light on the lunacy of "domestic bliss" and to reveal that a matching washer/dryer can't make you happy. She gave a voice to legions of women who didn't have one; it was break-out writing because nobody had ever dared to poke fun at motherhood.

However, now that we all know that we're not the only one whose kids run through the house naked screaming "We're out of toilet paper," that material isn't as fresh. Erma broke the taboo, so it doesn't need breaking again. Yet in some ways the issues we face today are timeless: relationships, parenting, nosy neighbors, bad bosses, and I hope that I address them in a way that resonates with the current reality.

From talking with Betsy Bombeck I suspect that my worldview is similar to Erma's, in that I like to use humor to address the angst behind the manufactured bliss. I think if she were writing today, she'd write about things like Botox, corporate fools, flat line-libidos and drive-through spirituality.

Q: Tell us about your kids and your husband.

A: You mean aside from the fact that they're very gracious because they don't get too angry when I write about their personal lives for all the world to see?

My husband is great, we've been married for 21 years. (Yes, I was a child bride, at the age of 22.) But we've been through our ups and downs over the years; I'm pretty open about the fact that it took a team of highly skilled counselors to help me to finally understand how to create a happy marriage.

As for my kids, I have two daughters ages 9 and 14, and while I am far from a perfect mother, they are truly the light of my life.

Q: Lightning round time. Your favorite guilty-pleasure food? TV show? Book? Movie?

A: Peanut M&M's and convenience store coffee; "Super Nanny," because it always makes me feel like a fabulous parent; "The Road Less Traveled" by Scott Peck and "Freakonomics" by Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner; "It's a Wonderful Life," because there's nothing like knowing how much the little guy matters.

Q: Before becoming the heiress to Erma Bombeck's tiara, what did you do?

A: I did sales seminars. I've taught thousands of people how to sell everything from useless widgets to life-changing drugs.

Q: One of the main themes in your work became the title of your first book: "Forget Perfect." How did you come up with that motto?

A: When I realized that everybody was trying to be perfect and nobody felt like they were succeeding. Once we all admit that we're normal we can get on with our lives and have fun. That image of how things should be is what keeps us form enjoying the way things actually are.

Q: You joke that you'd rather not break a nail by cleaning a bathroom in your house. So, if we walked into your home today, what would we see?

A: My kitchen counter is strewn with mail, the family room is littered with kid clutter, and my dining room table is piled up with half-completed press kits. But my toilets are free from visible dirt -- because I have the good sense, and good fortune, to have a bi-weekly cleaning service.

Q: OK, then, what's the biggest message that people -- women especially -- take away from your writing?

A: That it's OK not to be perfect. That you're not the only one who struggles to get through the day. It's kind of funny, trying to be perfect doesn't make people like you more, it makes them like you less. But for some reason we always think we're the only one who doesn't measure up.

Once you realize that you're not alone, that we all have the same crazy thoughts, then you can just relax -- and be your real self.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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