Mental health, like dandruff, crops up when you least expect it. There was the day, for instance, that I ducked into the supermarket with a scarf tied over my curlers, trying to look inconspicuous. I never go out with my hair in curlers! But guests were arriving on short notice, and my emergency shelf was pared down to one jar of marshmallow cream and two cans of liver-flavored dog food.
Anyway, I wouldn't run into anyone I knew. Please, not anyone neat I knew. But there was Helen, before the low-fat yogurt display immaculate in a coral linen pants suit. I slammed the cart into reverse and wheeled around, only to be greeted with "Hi there!" from my neighbor Liz, exquisitely slender in a turquoise shift. "Hi," I returned feebly pulling my slob scarf down over my plastic rollers. "I never come to the store like this."
Surely, I thought, there must be someone here who looks as crummy as I do. That's when good old Sally appeared, wearing a faded gold sweatshirt, paint-spotted slacks, and frayed floral tennis shoes.
"You're beautiful," I told her. "Tell, me, why do I run into everyone I know when I look like this?"
"What you need is some orange peel in your life," Sally said. "Some what?" I asked.
"Orange peel. Let me tell you about it. Last summer my best boyfriend from high school days decided to look me up, unannounced. I answered the doorbell and there he stood--with his perfectly stunning blond wife.
"They arrived just seconds after our basset hound had thrown up all over the living room rug, so in desperation I took them through the family room, forgetting that the dryer was broken and there were damp T-shirts and shorts draped over the backs of all the chairs. In the kitchen, the dishes were still in the sink because of the morning carpool run.
"And while I was trying to apologize, I noticed what seemed to symbolize not only my housekeeping, but my very life at that moment: a long, shriveled, dusty orange peel curled up contentedly in the middle of the floor as if it had been there for weeks.
"He saw it, and she saw it, and they both saw me trying to slide it casually to one side with my foot. Then it stuck to my sneaker and I had to bend over and pull it off like adhesive tape. I don't remember what we talked about. All I remember is that wretched orange peel in the center of the floor."
"What did your husband say when you told him?" I asked.
"He laughed. Then he said, 'Think how happy you made them. He's glad he didn't marry you and she figures the old girl friend is no threat. Don't think of your ego; think what you're doing for their marriage.'
"My psyche was still dented, but the idea was just nutty enough to be appealing. Now it's become an official family tradition. Whenever one of us gets caught with a case of slipping facade, we just say, 'Remember the orange peel,' and things get back into perspective."
My chance to test Sally's theory came soon enough. That evening, as I carried the hastily assembled stroganoff to the table for our guests, my automatic apology tape whirred into action, "Usually when I make stroganoff, I use fresh mushrooms and . . ." Suddenly I could see that spiral of orange peel dangling before my eyes like a Christmas-tree ornament. I knew that, unchecked, I would continue to apologize. Firmly, I began all over. "Now tell us about your trip." When our guests left, they specifically mentioned that the evening had been "relaxing."
That's when I became a convert to the orange-peel approach. The battle to keep up appearances unnecessarily, the mask-whatever you give creeping perfectionism--robs us of our energies and doesn't do a bit to endear us to the others we're trying so hard to impress. As William James put it, "To give up pretensions is as blessed a relief as to have them gratified."
So, when you're caught with an orange peel--say, a bathrobe at 11 a.m.--relax. Think how happy you're making someone else. Sometimes the best way to brighten the corner where you are is not to dust it.