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What would Erma do?

How do you write humor in a crabby world? It’s difficult to be funny when the mood of the country is worse than the temperament of a pack of hungry junkyard dogs, strangers are yelling at each other on social media, and even my usual cheerful friends are picking fights, taking sides and stomping their feet. In the midst of the angst, I ask the redeeming question: What would Erma do?

Erma Bombeck’s talent propelled her above rancorous debate and petty sniping. She pounced on an important topic and turned the issue into a teachable moment or a silly punchline. Even those who may have disagreed with her were delighted by her creative wit and profound wisdom. Through 4,000 newspaper columns written from 1965 to 1996, she became America’s favorite female humorist and the best friend to more than 30 million readers. She is my hero.

What would she say about the current climate of chaos? In my opinion, she would offer an anecdote that portrays the weaknesses of our hectic, self-centered lives. For example, in her book If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits?, Erma writes about how she was trying to take advantage of some rare time alone to read a book in an airport waiting room. An elderly woman sitting next to her started a conversation, and Erma was irritated. Then she learned that the casket with the woman’s deceased husband also would be on the plane, and they had been married 53 years. Here is what Erma wrote:

I don’t think I have ever detested myself more than I did at that moment. Another human being was screaming to be heard…All she needed was a listener…It seemed rather incongruous that in a society of supersophisticated communication, we often suffer from a shortage of listeners.”

The book was written in 1978, and the message remains the same. Why are people so angry, and what are they demanding? They want the right to be heard. They want to matter. They want the rest of us to put down our business, look them in the eyes (through the magic of the Internet, if necessary), and say, “I’m listening.”

In Chapter 14 of the same book, Erma notes that life is not all fun and blue skies.

There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt. And how do you know laughter if there is no pain to compare it with?”

Erma was a member of the national Presidential Advisory Committee for Women and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Her advocacy was criticized by conservative groups, and some bookstores removed her books. The ERA failed, but Erma did not. She continued to amuse her readers with books titled, When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home and A Marriage Made in Heaven…or Too Tired For an Affair.

Erma Bombeck’s writing endures because she didn’t dwell on the negative or criticize others. Through all the problems of life, she continued to provide relief with humor and wit. I need to remember that as I’m sifting through the debris of dastardly discourse and wanting to fire off a curt comment. Through making jokes about stress, motherhood and life, Erma left us laughing. One last line: “The only reason I would take up jogging is so that I could hear heavy breathing again.” Thanks, Erma.

— Elaine Ambrose

Elaine Ambrose has written eight books,  including Midlife Happy Hour, Midlife Cabernet and Menopause Sucks. She’s an award-winning, syndicated blogger and frequent speaker at national conferences, including the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Find more details on her website

Reflections of Erma