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Damn, I Miss Erma Bombeck

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Erma was there for women in the sixties, picking up where Dr. Spock left off, giving stay-at-home moms a chance to laugh off the tribulations of diaper rash, carpooling and mouthy kids.

I was so in hopes we'd grow old together. Since her departure in 1996, I've had to figure out life for myself. Then, a few years ago, I thought: "What would Erma be writing about had she lived to be my age?' I'm sure she'd be telling septuagenarians to look past the cataracts, pacemakers, and hip replacements and find the humor in everyday life regardless of your age.

With that in mind, I wrote A Little Help from My Friends. In the first chapter of this small, purple book, I deal with the trauma of learning from a cosmetic technician named Tiffany, that the lipstick I'd used for a decade is no longer being made.

"Recalled, was it?" I asked, sensing some corporate mischief afoot, perhaps because the old lip color stayed on too long.

"Your old product has been 'replaced,' Tiffany said professionally. "Our new tonal pallet now gives you healthier, full-bodied lips with a shimmering, multidimensional illusion of depth."

No doubt about it, Tiffany knew her stuff. But she caught me off guard with her follow up question, one that I've never been asked before by a salesclerk.

"Do you want to look dramatic, sexy, or bold," she inquired? As we stood there for a few moments, gazing across the counter, I knew we had reached a generational divide that could not be bridged. Read the whole story from my side of the gulf.

Chapter 1: Shimmering Lips; Waddling Hips

My kids once gave me a certificate for a facial, but I never used it. I find it annoying to have anyone fiddle with my face. That includes the bubbly sales clerks in the department stores who spot me several counters away and want to perform their magic on my countenance.

I recently made a trip to the mall to replace my lipstick. It was an emergency purchase; the rim of my old tube was beginning to leave scrape marks on my lips. In my haste, I wandered into one of those makeup boutiques with the strobe lights and the funky sales clerks with spiked hair and nose rings. As I browsed the cosmetic collections, I thought I had inadvertently stumbled into a porn shop. One shelf was labeled Plump Your Pucker and another -- I kid you not -- was called Super Orgasm. I got out of there as fast as my titanium hip joint would take me and headed for my old standby, the anchor store at the far end of the mall.

I was out of breath by the time I arrived in the familiar surroundings of Macy's cosmetic department, a space that covers nearly a half-acre of the store's layout. I collected myself before approaching a counter, determined to stay focused on my mission.

"I need a tube of Pink Paradise lipstick," I said quickly to the clerk in the black smock with the perfectly tinted face.

"I'm sorry," she replied sympathetically, "but we haven't carried that shade since 1997. You must have had a large supply on hand."

I was downcast. I began to argue, insisting that I had bought the tube within the last several years. The young lady smiled softly and introduced herself as "Tiffany," a professional cosmetic artist happy to assist with my facial needs.

"Do you want to be dramatic, sexy, or bold?" she asked as she commenced her reprogramming session.

"None of the above. I just want to keep my lips from falling off, looking like fish scales, or taking on the appearance of a cadaver."

Tiffany said the newer products would modernize my appearance, giving me healthier, more full-bodied lips with a shimmering, multidimensional illusion of depth.

My mind paused momentarily, like a jammed printer flashing an overload signal.

"Does Margaret still work here?" I asked.

"No, Margaret retired last month. I'm caring for her old clients," she said with a detectable emphasis on the word "old."

"Drats," I said to myself. "Margaret would have found my color from a stash of old favorites hidden away for discerning customers like myself and I'd be out of here lickety-split."

Desperate and running out of options, I begrudgingly submitted to my new lip care provider. I hate to buy cosmetics that require a training course, but I succumbed. I fell respectfully silent as Tiffany commenced her tutorial.

She selected various tubes from her array of samples and applied several colors to the back of my hand. Pointing to one of the smudges, she declared, "This product compliments your skin tone and has far more conditioning properties than what you're getting now." She said the new lip color would moisturize my lips, protect them from harmful UV rays, add natural collagens for a plumper look, and stay on, possibly, ten minutes longer than my old brand.

During the next forty-five minutes, I learned that lips need extra moisture because they have so few oil glands. I learned the difference between a matte finish and a gloss. I learned that Celebrity Sexy Pout is the pick of serious lippies and would earn me two to three compliments a day. If I wanted longevity, (of lip color, that is), the hands down winner was Max Factor Lipfinity. Elizabeth Arden Exceptional "is to die for," she crooned, "rich and smooth, but you have to reapply it almost hourly."

To complement my new look, Tiffany introduced me to a number of lip accessories, including moisturizers, balms, plumpers and vitamin gels. She said that an outlining pencil and brush were essential for disguising lip wrinkles and achieving an even layer of color that wouldn't wander onto my chin. She concluded by showing me how to blot correctly on a tissue to set the color, but not blur it.

Tiffany said if I would come in again, she'd make my eyes look ten years younger. I told her a plastic surgeon had offered me twenty years, a tempting proposal but not one covered by Medicare -- yet.

As I bonded with my new lip coach, I couldn't resist passing on a story someone told at my bridge club. "Did you hear what happened at a middle school in Oregon?" I asked. "The girls would blot their lips on the bathroom mirrors and every night the custodian had to spend extra time scrubbing it off. Finally, the principal assembled the girls in the bathroom to allow the custodian to show them how much trouble it was to clean the mirrors. He took out a long-handled squeegee, dipped it into a toilet bowl several times and scrubbed the mirrors clean. Since his demonstration, there have been no lip prints on the mirrors."

"Yes," she said with a patronizing smile, "I've heard that story several times. I think it's an urban legend." I could tell Tiffany was too close to her own teen years to find the tale as humorous as had the women in my bridge club. But as long as I had a cosmetic expert at my fingertips, I delved further.

"The women in my bridge club brought up a tantalizing question recently," I said. "Do you have any idea how many tubes of lipstick the average woman has eaten in her lifetime -- you know, on food and with lip licking and such?"

Obviously, she had touched on that topic in her facial studies because she didn't hesitate in the least.

"We eat a lot less than we used to since we now have light lip glosses that give just a hint of color."

"I guess it's best we never know for sure," I said with a sigh as I handed her my credit card. She agreed. I went on my way, leaving Tiffany to change the world one set of lips at a time.

Now each time I wear my new color, my daughter says, "That's such a warm subtle shade; it's just right for you." I am so pleased. On the other hand, a number of friends my age have looked at me and said, "Why aren't you wearing lipstick anymore?"

But my old friend, Edna, who knows me best, ignored the amenities. She stared at my collagen-rich lips and said, "I hate to say this, Jean, but your lips are beginning to swell and so are your ankles. I think it's time you go back on your diuretic pills."

Note: Erma Bombeck would have been 85 this year. She often said: "If you can laugh at it you can live with it." Thanks for the inspiration ol' gal. We miss ya.