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The next Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop takes place April 5-7, 2018, at the University of Dayton, Erma’s alma mater. We are sold out. To register for the waitlist, click here.

How to live in this world

It was all over the news: Over two dozen killed, mostly kids, in a Connecticut elementary school shooting.

There was no making sense of it.

Terrible, gut-wrenching, brain-crashing things happen in life. They don’t just throw those who are living through it off balance. We are a web of humanity, one door front, one neighborhood, one phone call, one click away. We know one another’s business, and it rocks us all.

Those of us far from the horror wish we could help, want to know how to prevent it from happening to us, feel dizzy with the inability to put our finger on the pulse of something so hugely confusing.

Those close to the tragedy tread water, deal with the flood in front of our noses, force ourselves to breathe and make it through to the other side, oblivious that there are people on higher ground wishing us well.

It is all so much, so, so much. Things like children being randomly murdered make no sense.

It makes. No. Sense.

As I watched the clock count down until I could go get my son from his own elementary school, what kept running through my own head was: This is why I do it.

This is why I painstakingly make rainbow cupcakes for my daughter’s fifth birthday.

This is why I help build forts that eat my living room for breakfast.

This is why I remember to move the Elf each night.

This is why I smile through migraines and invite the annoying kid over and only buy the rice in the tub even though the rice in the box is so much cheaper.

Cars crash. Diseases surprise. Deranged men shoot.

I don’t know if Fate’s bullet will hit me next or someone I love so much I can’t even type their names in this sentence. So I will make their lives richer. I will show them where they live in my heart by putting that heart on my sleeve for them to wipe their noses on. I will do this every day for as long as I can.

I am more than aware of how fragile life is, and how beautiful it can be.

I am more than aware of how much I have to lose, and how lucky I am to have it while I can.

I weep for the parents, the siblings, the families broken by a senseless man with guns. I wish them peace and hope, though I don’t know how it is even possible.

I will hold my kids a little longer tonight and kiss them more than usual before they drift to sleep. Then I will lie in bed sending those who lost so much all the light in my heart that I can muster, as I cry for the ones who hurt in a way I can’t fully understand.

Tomorrow I’ll continue to do things, big and small, to fill the lives of those I love with the proof that they deserve another day of being loved, as long as I’m able to give it.

— Kim Bongiorno

Kim Bongiorno is an author, freelance writer and award-winning blogger. She’s a contributor to various online publications, has been published in nine books, including the New York Times bestseller I Just Want to Pee Alone, wrote a short story collection called Part of My World and recently completed her first young adult novel. She blogs at Let Me Start By Saying. The original version was published as “Men Shoot, Cars Crash, Diseases Surprise: How to Live in This World” on Dec. 14, 2012 in The Huffington Post.

The elf on the edge: a Christmas irritation

Several years ago, my family was presented with a gift that, since then, has become a national Christmas holiday phenomenon, namely, The Elf on the Shelf.

When I first saw it, I had the same reaction as a lot of parents who think, “What a clever idea! My children will love this!” What I soon discovered, though, is that this new holiday tradition, for parents, is akin to annually having the tip of each toe impaled by a sharpened peppermint stick, one digit at a time, over a period of consecutive days — kind of like an advent calendar of terrorism.

In case you’re blissfully ignorant, The Elf on the Shelf is a small, rather creepy-looking elf doll packaged with a picture book detailing the origins and practices of this plastic-faced menace. The idea is that the elf, arriving shortly after Thanksgiving from the northernmost melting ice cap, trespasses in a different household spot each day from which to monitor the behavior of your children until Christmas morning. Every night, the festive informant travels back to Santa (or possibly the Russians) to report his findings, only to return the next day to his new post so your kids can argue over who found him first. You even get to name your elf. Our daughters chose the name “Alfie,” despite my suggestion that we call him Prowler, Creeper, or Vladimir.

Sounds fun, right? That is, until you realize that the parents must be certain that for a solid month of excruciating nights, Alfie dutifully returns to a different location in the home to resume his snooping. If, by some tragic coincidence, Alfie forgets to move his felt carcass to a new spot, we parents are left scrambling for some lame excuse the next morning when our children mournfully ask, “What happened to Alfie? He’s still taped to the potty!” I usually tell mine that Alfie has a cold and Santa gave him a full dose of NyQuil, which can cause drowsiness, dizziness, and an inability to remember annoying Yuletide rituals.

Some parents, with clearly too much time on their hands, help the elf arrange himself into funny and creative positions, like lifting a toothpick and marshmallow barbell, or being reproachfully questioned before a Senate Judiciary Committee of My Little Ponies. In our house, Alfie is more practically-minded, often moving one centimeter per day across the toilet tank lid, always at risk of “accidentally” falling in.

As the years have passed, the creators of The Elf on the Shelf have found new ways to siphon cash out of parents by developing elaborate accessories and identity options for The Elf on the Shelf. For instance, today’s elf can change clothes, have a pet reindeer or St. Bernard, and come in a variety of skin tones and genders. Honestly, we’ve never thought about Alfie’s gender much, other than that time we caught him trying on one of Barbie’s ballet leotards. I just told my daughters that it’s perfectly natural for a grown man to try on his wife’s . . . I mean an elf to try on women’s athletic attire from time to time.

As my daughters grow older, I keep thinking that the year will come when they no longer want to be intruded upon by this stuffed nuisance. On Thanksgiving day this year, though, my youngest daughter, once again, asked when Alfie was going to show up. Unable to bring myself to deliver the fake news that he was crushed after falling asleep in Santa’s La-Z-Boy, I grudgingly reminded her that Alfie always comes to our house the day after Thanksgiving. Sure enough, as we were still digesting cranberries and giblets the next morning, there he sat with a mischievous gleam in his eye assuring me that he had a set of sharpened peppermint sticks with my name on them.

So Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night — until you’re jolted out of your sleep in a cold sweat wondering if the elf remembered to do his job. And if he forgot, just blame it on the NyQuil.

— Jason Graves

Jason (Jase) Graves is a married father of three daughters, a lifelong resident of Longview, Texas, and a Texas A&M Aggie. He writes about home and family issues from a humorous perspective for the Cagle Cartoons syndicate and his blog. Other than writing, his primary hobby is sleeping as late as possible.

When good professors go bad

My young colleague leaves the office for class every morning with a cheery “I’m off to change lives!” As I approach retirement, I wonder how many lives I’ve transformed in 35 years of college teaching. As luck would have it, my students are only too happy to tell me.

The 8 a.m. crowd is aggrieved that class begins at eight and not four hours later when they prefer to roll out of their nests. In protest, they stagger in late wearing pajamas and slippers, periodically collapsing face-down. Snoring is rare, but not unheard of. God help me if I dim the lights.

The afternoon students are livelier, checking their smartphones every quarter-minute lest they miss the latest viral meme or pithy text such as “Dude!” I make the polite request that they turn off electronic devices — an invitation they consider tantamount to asking them to gouge out their own eyes.

My high academic standards take a frightening toll on students’ physical health. While writing essays in class, my young scholars massage their palms to maintain blood flow lest their hands spontaneously sever from their arms. During tests, they contort their faces and clutch their foreheads to signal that an aneurysm rupture is imminent.

Their mental health does not get by unscathed, either. Students who neglected to read (or sometimes even purchase) the textbook send me late-night emails beginning with the words “I’m freaking out!” This is followed by a series of questions that I have answered many times in class. One student who, coincidentally, did none of the assigned work insisted that I was “ruining his marriage.” I always imagined being a homewrecker would be more fun.

Over the years, several students have accused me of destroying their GPAs, jeopardizing their athletic eligibility, or tanking their chances for graduate school. Sometimes, I hit the trifecta and do all three. It’s a wonder I sleep at night with all this devastation in my wake. Clearly, I don’t deserve to.

By far, the most disastrous part of my legacy is triggering the demise of many students’ beloved grandmothers by scheduling final exams for their grandchildren. I had no idea of the power I wielded, but that’s the only conclusion I can draw from the disproportionate number of funerals held during final exam week. When a student struggles, it’s only a matter of time until a faltering granny flat-lines, sometimes more than once in her grandchild’s career. The more dire the students’ grades, the more likely they will feel compelled to sit vigil with Meemaw for days before she passes, and then stay an extra week while the rest of the relatives gather. Obviously, exams are out of the question.

University teaching is a noble profession. When I aspired to change lives through sharing my passion, I could never have imagined killing all those sweet innocent women. It’s more than my conscience can bear. For the sake of any Nanas still standing, I think it may be time for me to go.

— Mary Kay Fleming

Mary Kay Fleming is a psychology professor at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati. Her personal essays appear in two anthologies: These Summer Months edited by Anne Born, and In Celebration of Sisters edited by Trisha Faye. Her humorous essays have been honored at the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writing Competition and published at HumorWriters.org.

Decisions, decisions

On our drive to school, my daughter and I listened to a celebrity interview on the radio. In it, the men discussed that they eat the same three meals each day to eliminate three decisions they’d otherwise have to make. The objective was to quiet their growling tummies so they could get back to work, not obsess over food choices.

I had an epiphany: this is why they are successful individuals. This is also why they’re thin individuals — but that’s another topic altogether. The men also mentioned that President Obama had said he owns two suits that he basically alternated wearing for the same reason. Fewer choices.

I looked down at my PJ pants and thought that’s fantastic because I do the same thing! Simon & Schuster should call about my manuscript any day now. But when my husband texted me later asking, “What’s for dinner?” I both realized this is why my husband is successful at his job and why I was typing this blog bra-less with chocolate on my face.

After I meet my deadlines, I’m still supposed to have a meal plan and know when was the last time someone wore their favorite sweatshirt and where they could find it now.

As the resident parent — the one who works from home and manages the household — the weekly grocery list relies on the expectation that I know exactly what everyone else wants to put in their mouth.

“I’m headed to the grocery, any requests?” I’ll ask.

“Nope, just the usual,” is the typical response I get.

The usual. That translates to mean: protein bars to get Dad through the workday, tuna fish for the pescetarian sister, bagels for the vegetarian sister and avocados for baby brother. And that’s just for when they fend for themselves. I still have to think of meals! Oh, the hours wasted on Pinterest for meals! Crockpot meals, single-pan meals, casseroles you can freeze for later, and the always appetizing dump soups. Doesn’t that sound delicious? It sounds easy and that’s the point. What can I put together during the five minutes baby brother will sit in his chair and smear avocado all over his face? That’s a meal I can Pin! Naptime is for writing important blogs that will impress Simon & Schuster — like this one.

I love the days when my husband texts me, “Going out to lunch with the guys.” This is code meaning for dinner he’ll eat what I packed him for lunch.

Then, he texts me on Friday, “Want to go out to eat tonight?”

I know the magic is still alive.

“Yes!” I text back. “Yes, my love!” He so gets me.

“Great,” he responds. “Where do you want to go?”

— Bonnie Jean Feldkamp

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a writer, wife and mom of three kids whose ages span two decades. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; Brain, Child Magazine; Scary Mommy and more. Her Cincinnati Family Magazine mom blog earned Best Overall Blog in the 2017 Ohio Society of Professional Journalists Awards. Bonnie is also the communications director of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @writerBonnie or on her website at WriterBonnie.com.

The gift of the magi – a dog’s tale

The following story is based on actual events, retold in the spirit of a beloved Christmas classic—with apologies to O. Henry.

Three entire bowls. Three entire bowls full of dog food. Dog food that was completely untouched by the three hungry hounds looking expectantly through the patio door.

Laura sighed as she looked out. She scrimped and saved and pinched pennies where she could, but still there was no room in the budget for gourmet dog food.

Hal stopped off at the Farmer’s Co-op every Friday on his way home from work to pick up a bag of Happy Hound, along with feed for the livestock. It wasn’t that he skimped. After all, he loved those dogs as much as Laura did, but they ran a farm. They had to be practical. So co-op dog food it was.

Of course, Laura understood. Still, as she looked out at those three adorable, hungry faces and back again at their bowls full of uneaten dog food, she knew she had to do something.

Suddenly, she had an idea! Her eyes shone brightly as she rushed to the refrigerator. There it was, way in the back—the stainless steel can, the one that had belonged to her grandmother.

Just a dab she thought. Just enough to add a little flavor. Gently Laura scooped out a glob of the rich, smokey goodness. The dogs stood at the patio door watching eagerly as she carefully poured the melted bacon grease over their dry food, stirring it gently until every bite was coated.

When she opened the door they dogs rushed in and devoured their delectable treat. Laura laughed out loud as they licked their bowls clean.

Each day for weeks she repeated this loving ritual. When she ran low on bacon grease, Laura simply made more. Hal was delighted when he woke up to the smell of bacon frying—and on a Tuesday, no less! He was pleased a few nights later when they had BLTs for supper. “How clever of Laura!” he thought when she served bacon wrapped asparagus at their church Christmas party.

Hal was still remembering this particular delicacy when, few days before Christmas, he came home early from work, a new bag of dog food tucked under his arm. There in the kitchen stood his bride, spoon in hand, stirring. Oh what culinary delights awaited?

“What in the world are you doing?” he exclaimed! For try as he might, Hal could not figure out why Laura would be cooking with dog food.

“Oh Hal! Guess what I’ve done? I’m getting the dogs to eat their food again. They had stopped, but look! Hal! It’s bacon grease—leftover from cooking. They love it! Wasn’t that a brilliant of me!”

Hal smiled and sat down at the table. He pulled Laura down to his lap and kissed her. “I’ve been brilliant too,” he chuckled, showing her the bag of dog food. “I noticed a few weeks ago that the dogs were getting fat, so I decided to ‘splurge’ on something healthier for them. For weeks now, I’ve been buying diet dog food.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men. And being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two dog lovers who were not wise. Even so, they loved their dogs, and they loved each other. And that is a great gift indeed.

-Laura Hudgens

Laura is a freelance writer and a part-time high school teacher. She lives on a buffalo farm in the Ozark Hills with her husband and four kids. Her writing career began when she started a farming blog, but she soon realized that she doesn’t really know anything about farming. So she writes about education, family, faith, and food. Her work has also appeared on The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Parent.co, Grown and Flown, and elsewhere. You can read more here.

The benefits of the doubt

When it comes to health care, the most important question facing the American people is this: Is the pain reliever you need to get rid of the headache caused by your employer’s open enrollment covered under medical insurance or do you have to spend thousands of dollars in deductibles before you can write off a bottle of aspirin?

That’s what I asked a very nice and very knowledgeable human resources coordinator named Luann, who recently helped me navigate the process because my 4-year-old granddaughter, who is more technologically advanced than I am, isn’t on the payroll and is already covered under her father’s plan.

“My niece is better on the computer than I am, although I’m an online shopper, so I’m really good at this,” said Luann, who had been on the job for only three weeks before the rollout.

“Too bad the company isn’t rolling out the barrel,” I said.

“That would help,” Luann replied as we sat at a monitor in the HR department and she showed me how to log on to the program.

There were four categories: benefits, health, money and protection.

“Is there a Powerball option?” I asked.

“I’m afraid not,” Luann replied. “If there was, I wouldn’t be here.”

Then we hit the initials: HSA (health savings account), FSA (flexible spending account) and, the one that really stunned me, STD.

“Please tell me it doesn’t stand for what I think it does,” I spluttered.

“It stands for short-term disability,” Luann assured me. “Why?” she added with a smile. “What did you think it stands for?”

“Something that I’m sure isn’t covered,” I said.

I was already signed up for the company’s dental and vision plans, but for the past two years I have been on my wife’s medical plan because it’s less expensive.

“Her deductible isn’t as high as ours,” I explained. “But no matter what plan you’re on, with deductibles these days, you pretty much have to be in a train wreck for them to take effect.”

“There’s a simple solution,” Luann said. “Don’t take the train.”

“Good advice,” I said. “But if something happened, I’d have to pay out of my own pocket. And my pocket isn’t big enough to hold all that money.”

“So what’s the answer?” Luann asked.

I told her the absolutely true story of my three unsuccessful campaigns for vice president of the United States, in 1992, 1996 and 2000, when my running mate, media prankster Alan Abel, was the presidential candidate.

“He ran under the name of Porky,” I told Luann. “I used my nickname, Zez. We were the Gershwin-inspired ticket of Porky and Zez. We ran under the banner of the Cocktail Party. We came up with our health-care plan in New York City, so we called it Big Apple Coverage. Since an apple a day keeps the doctor away, we proposed a 10-cent co-pay on every apple. That way, everyone could afford medical care.”

“I would have voted for you,” Luann said.

“Some people did,” I told her. “They probably couldn’t afford their prescription medications.”

“So there still isn’t an answer to the health-care problem,” Luann said.

“Yes, there is,” I responded. “Porky and I had another proposal: Everybody in America becomes a member of Congress. That way, we’d have the same plan they do and we’re all covered. Either that or kick Congress off their plan and make them shop for insurance like the rest of us.”

“It’s too bad you didn’t run again last year,” Luann said.

“I’m old now, so if I ran, I’d sprain an ankle or blow out a knee,” I said. “And I wouldn’t meet the deductible.”

I thanked Luann for her help and good humor but said I was going to stick with my wife’s medical plan.

“Stay healthy,” Luann said, though after dealing with me, she no doubt needed a pain reliever. I hope it’s covered.

— Jerry Zezima

Stamford Advocate humor columnist Jerry Zezima is the author of three books. Visit his blog at www.jerryzezima.blogspot.com. Email: JerryZ111@optonline.net

40 writers selected for EBWW humor anthology

We’re bringing to life a book filled with funny coming-of-age essays from 40 women humorists.

More than 100 writers answered the call for submissions for a proposed humor anthology, edited by prolific writer Allia Zobel Nolan and a team from the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

Tentatively titled Laugh Out Loud: 40 Women Humorists Celebrate Then and Now…Before We Forget, the book will feature a mixture of Zobel Nolan’s essays and “fall-on-the-floor-and-roll-around-in-stitches” humorous, eclectic contributions from these talented writers:

Amy McVay Abbott
Elaine Ambrose
Karen G. Anderson
Karla Araujo
Leslie Bamford
Jennifer Bryne
Tracy Roberts Buckner
Michele Poston Combs
Kaye Curren
Fritzy Dean
Janene Dutt
Lori B. Duff
Cindy Eastman
Janie Emaus
Christy Heitger-Ewing
Bonnie Jean Feldkamp
Sharon Gerger
Tassie Hewitt
Georgia A. Hubley
Carolyn Anderson Jones
Sharon M. Kennedy
Sheri Kuhn
Sandy Lingo
Lisa Marlin
Kelly McKenzie
Amy Mullis
Alice Muschany
Risa Nye
Anne Elise O’Connor
Lucia Paul
Yvonne Ransel
Lorraine Ray
Joanne Salemink
Amy Hartl Sherman
Barbara I. Smith
DC Stanfa
Sherry Stanfa-Stanley
Janine V. Talbot
Denise Thiery
Pamela Wright

“Wow, it sure is great to hear those three little words, ‘You can write!,’ and that certainly applied to the more than 100 submissions we received for our EBWW humor anthology,” said Zobel Nolan, a former senior editor at Reader’s Digest who has published close to 200 books. “To a one, the submissions were all sterling. Of course, that made our job harder. But in the end, the team chose those essays that best spoke to the themes of aging and ‘the way we were’ with originality and clarity. These are unique essays that painted a visual portrait of those particular time frames — essays that made the reader shake her head in agreement and/or laugh until her sides hurt.”

The book is one of two new initiatives launched by the workshop this year. More than 400 writers competed for “A Hotel Room of One’s Own: The Erma Bombeck | Anna Lefler Humorist-in-Residence Program.”

“It’s our mission to encourage and support writers,” said Teri Rizvi, founder and director. “This book provides a creative avenue for some very funny, gifted writers.”

Fat lies

I had just announced to my Love God that I was going to join that famous weight-loss program for my second go-around. You know, the triumph of hope over experience.

My lost weight had crept back, as it often does. So it was time to sign up again, pay my monthly dues and waddle into the weekly meetings.

I went to my first meeting, version 2.0, and weighed in. I cringed as I saw my weight in my record book. How did it get to this, I wondered? I used to weigh far less. Well, OK, that was two years ago. Fat returns when you aren’t paying attention.

With a straight face, my Love God then asked the forbidden question: “So what do you weigh?”— as if that were a normal marital question, like “Have you seen my sunglasses, dear?”

Did I hear that man correctly? Has he learned nothing after 30 years with me and 14 with his first wife? If he insisted on asking a dumb question, I’d give him a dumb answer.

“I weigh 114 pounds,” I replied. That ought to stop him in his tracks. Let him prove I’m wrong.

“114 — really?” he said, eyebrows raised. “That’s very interesting.”

I’d lied, and we both knew it. Game on.

I wanted to dress as lightly as possible for my second weigh-in a week later, so I took my kitchen food scales into the bathroom to weigh various bras and panties. As I was leaving the bathroom, I was startled to meet my Love God in the doorway. I was like a deer caught in the headlights.

“What in heaven’s name are you doing?” he asked.

I  braved the truth.

“I was weighing my underwear to see which pieces weighed the least.”

He rolled his eyes, trying to ignore this Lucy moment.

When I arrived home from the meeting, my Love God was waiting for me. “So how did the meeting go?” he asked. In Honey-speak that meant, “Did you lose any weight?”

“The meeting went well — I was down two and a half pounds.”

“So what do you weigh now?”

Jeepers, did he think I was a mathematician? Lying is so complicated. I had to quickly recalculate my fake weight, subtracting 2.5 from 114, with him staring at me. My weigh-in record book told the truth, but this conversation was not about the truth.

Honey asks every week what my new weight is. I recalibrate my fake weight to correspond with my true weight loss. Apparently, I now weigh 87 pounds, with a final weight goal of 64 pounds.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave…

— Diane Pascoe is the author of the newly published collection of hilarious essays, Life Isn’t Perfect, But My Lipstick IsHer funny memoir “collects the mental musings of a wife, mother and (sometimes) gracefully aging woman.” She lives in North Carolina with her husband, Eric (also known in these stories as “Honey” and “Love God”) and their two dogs.

 

Reflections of Erma