The workshop for humor writing, human interest writing, networking and getting published

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Stacey Gustafson

Stacey GustafsonStacey Gustafson is an author, humor columnist and blogger who has experienced the horrors of being trapped inside a pair of SPANX. Her work has appeared in Chicken Soup for the SoulNot Your Mother’s Books, Midlife Boulevard, More Magazine, Better After 50 and on her daughter’s bulletin board. Her book, Are You Kidding Me? My Life With An Extremely Loud Family, Bathroom Calamities, and Crazy Relatives, will be released September 2014.

Inspired by Erma

Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop badge(Editor’s Note: When we asked for personal stories about how the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop inspired writers to write — anything from books to blogs — the response was overwhelming. If you missed the opportunity and would like to share your story, send a short note to erma@udayton.edu for a follow-up story. )

One writer dubs the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop the “Woodstock of Humor.” Another calls it a “utopia” for writers — one “that only appears every other year, out of the mist, on the edge of the Great Miami River in Dayton, Ohio (like Brigadoon).”

Many say it’s life changing. Empowering. And, yes, magical.

When we asked for personal stories from writers, they told us they gained the confidence, writing know-how and connections to publish books, write essays for The New York Times and other national outlets, perform stand-up comedy, secure speaking engagements and submit work for anthologies.

“EBWW has been a nonstop chain reaction of success stories for me,” says Bonnie Jean Feldkamp, a freelance writer from Louisville, Kentucky, who credits keynoter and faculty member Gina Barreca for giving her valuable feedback on her essay about her blended family. It later appeared in The New York Times‘ “Motherlode” section.Bonnie Jean Feldkamp

Attendee and fellow writer Amy Sherman hired Feldkamp to help her start her Kranky Kitty website and develop a social media strategy. And other writers, Lisa Smith Molinari and Suzette Martinez Standring, introduced her to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, where she now serves on its board as director of media.

In 2014, an attendee came up to Rosalie Bernard in a University of Dayton hallway after she “totally bombed” her Pitchapalooza book pitch and said, “Hey, I would buy it!” Bernard wanted to hug her. “I kept thinking, ‘If she would, others Rosalie Bernardwill.'” Two years later, she published Mimi and the Ghost Crab Dance, which is now in its second printing, and she’s writing the second book in the trilogy.

“And all this was inspired by Team Erma,” she says.

Allia Zobel NolanAllia Zobel Nolan, a former senior editor at Reader’s Digest who’s written close to 200 books, traveled from Norwalk, Connecticut, to attend her first workshop this spring — with some hesitation. “What could a writers’ conference teach a publishing veteran of 15 years, a been-there-done-that woman on the lookout for innovative, time-saving, smarter ways of doing things while staying relevant in an ever-changing literary world?” she asked herself.

Plenty.

“I learned so much, I could hardly internalize it all — from social media to branding, from the importance of garnering a loyal ‘tribe’ of fans and friends to getting a lousy first draft of your novel done and dusted, not to mention a way into The Huffington Post. (After trying for months to no avail, I’m now a blogger on the site, thanks to the kindness of a most helpful Erma attendee who recommended me),” she says.

“Then there are the people — other writers, authors, humorists — who understand what it’s like writing (sitting down at your desk and opening up a vein), who are not afraid to share their triumphs and failures, and who are more encouraging than your mom coaxing you into the world at birth.”

Stacey GustafsonStacey Gustafson, an author and blogger from Pleasanton, California, caught “the stand-up comedy bug” after learning techniques from comedy pro Leighann Lord and performing at the closing night of the 2014 workshop. Since then, she won a stand-up comedy award, performed at a middle school fundraiser, wrote a feature story for Toastmaster Magazine and landed two paid stand-up gigs.

“The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop has made a huge difference in my writing and confidence,” she says. “Through this process, I discovered that stand-up comedy is way harder than writing humor. When you write a story, you’re in the comfort of your own home, pecking away at the keyboard with the ability to rewrite and massage a story at your leisure. The same cannot be said for stand-up.

“In stand-up, every word must be perfect. Gestures, pauses, eye contact, timing and facial expressions are essential for success plus the ability to gauge an audience reaction. Don’t forget body movement, posture and memorization. …My confidence has soared, and it all started at the 2014 workshop.”Ginger Lumpkin

After Ginger Lumpkin, a columnist from Thorntown, Indiana, heard comic, author and coach Judy Carter give an hilarious keynote talk at the 2014 workshop, she began thinking about what it would take to launch a public speaking career. After this year’s workshop, she registered for Carter’s online class and began working with her on developing and perfecting a motivational talk.

“I am presenting it four times at a corporate training conference, and two other businesses, so far, have expressed interest,” she said. “Judy is phenomenal. EBWW is amazing.”

Mindy Wells Hoffbauer, a writer from Springboro, Ohio, credits the “incredible networking opportunities” at the workshop for helping her land a job in social media marketing for W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon, who co-wrote the screenplay for A Dog’s Purpose, available in movie theatres nationwide, starting in January.Mindy Wells Hoffbauer

“I’ve had the pleasure of editing books for Nancy Berk and Barb Best and am now having the time of my life working as a social media director,” she says. “And none of this would have happened without Erma.”

Kim EllerKim Reynolds, of Commerce Twp., Michigan, says the workshop gave her a big dose of “You can do it.”

“I made so many new friends and learned so much about writing that it almost paralyzed me,” says Reynolds, who pens a humorous blog, Kim’s Crazy Life, and writes for the Oakland Press.

At the 2016 workshop, Janet Coburn, a freelance writer and blogger from Beavercreek, Ohio, with bipolar disorder, “learned a thing or two about writing — how to write a better query letter, how to improve my blogs, when to consider self-publishing” — but mostly she learned to pace herself by finding quiet spaces and taking breaks.Janet Coburn

“Am I glad I went? Yes. The experience was good for me in more ways than one. Paying attention to my own limits and not trying to live up to artificial expectations made for a good — and survivable — learning experience.”

Kathy TullyAfter registering for the 2016 workshop, Kathy Shiels Tully, a regular contributor to the Boston Globe and magazines, felt so inspired about her writing life that she sent an essay for inclusion in Chicken Soup for the Soul’s latest book, The Power of Gratitude. It was accepted.

“I’ve sent a few stories in to Chicken Soup and have to say there’s something exciting knowing your story was picked out of thousands,” she says.

After the spring workshop, Helen Chibnik, a lifestyle writer and blogger from Middletown, New Jersey, found the inspiration to write a novel — and more.Helen Chibnik

“You would think that the workshop content would be the best part, but it wasn’t,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong. The content was worth five times the price. It was wonderful, and I still use the timer Cindy Ratzlaff and Kathy Kinney gave us. (And) Anna Lefler’s session inspired me to work on a novel, to write more and care less about what other people might think.

“But, for me, that workshop provided a community of people who think like me, who understand what it means to be a mom, a professional, a daughter, lose a loved one, and to fail and to still find something to smile about. People who feed on humor for therapy, even for survival sometimes. I don’t think there is another collection of smarter, happier and more insightful people than the Erma attendees.”

— Teri Rizvi

Teri Rizvi is the founding director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, where she also serves as executive director of strategic communications.

The tribe of Erma

stand-up comedy performersVirginia author Kimberly “Kimba” Dalferes says you can quote her on this: “Finding your tribe is life-affirming and feeds your soul.”

Dalferes describes the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in this way: “What happens when 350 people, predominantly women, truck in from all across the U.S. to spend three full days laughing (and a little crying), eating (mostly desserts) and baring their souls to each other? Magic. In a place called Dayton. That’s not a punchline.”

Humorist Wanda Argersinger blogs, “I have never attended any other conference where the attitude of the attendees actually infiltrates the air. You walk and breathe support, love, hope, admiration, curiosity and absolute acceptance of who you are. ‘These are my people,’ could be heard over and over again. ‘This is where I was meant to be.’”

From storyteller Kathryn Mayer, who “found her funny” at the 2014 EBWW and returned a renewed writer: “I find inspiration. Peace. Excitement. Energy. Encouragement. Talent. It all happens here.”

In all, nearly 60 writers tapped out literally thousands of words to capture three laugh-filled days of learning and networking at the University of Dayton, Erma’s alma mater. These include essays from Lori Mansell, a long-retired school teacher who discovered it’s never too late to write, a couple of University of Dayton students, journalists, authors, magazine writers and bloggers.

A special highlight: Keynoters Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff are producing five video features of stories from their sprint writing workshop that encouraged writers to find their voices.Cindy Ratzlaff and Kathy Kinney

Here are links to newspaper and online stories, blogs and podcasts:

Amy Abbott: Afterglow

Amy Abbott: Erma Bombeck’s Forever Legacy

Wanda M. Argersinger: A Legacy Like No Other

Anne Bardsley: Erma Summer Camp

Jennifer Belden: How Erma Helped Me Reclaim My Focus and Boot Dolores

Nancy Berk:  Showbiz Analysis: Legendary Author Roy Blount Jr. Talks Creativity, Satire and Pie on Parade.com. Listen to podcast here.

Nancy Berk: Showbiz Analysis: The Drew Carey Show‘s Mimi Elevates Kathy Kinney to Queen of Her Own Life on Parade.com. Listen to podcast here.

Betsy Bitner: Together in a Spirit of Humor, Times Union in Albany, N.Y.

Valentine Brkich: Let the Sessions Begin!

Valentine Brkich: Welcome to No Man’s Land

Patricia Wynn Brown: Ride ‘em, cowgirl

Lisa Carpenter: 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop: 13 Things I Loved Plus a Few Me-Loved-Nots

Helen Chibnik: Secret Passion (illustrated and recorded by Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff)

Michelle Poston Combs: Like a Greased Watermelon

Michelle Poston Combs: Standing Up at Erma Bombeck 2016

Kimberly “Kimba” Dalferes: Can I Quote You on That?

Julie Danis: The Olga Stores: The Best Seamstress of Section A of the Block Association of EastWest Warsaw (illustrated and recorded by Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff)

Lexie Digby: Erma’s Essence

Lori B. Duff: Men, Women, and the Equality of Functional Pockets

Lori B. Duff: How to Fly Without a Driver’s License in 27 Invasive Steps

Amy Eddings: She Who Laughs, Lives More Fully

Estelle Erasmus: Pearls of Advice from the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Conference (#2016EBWW)

Christy Heitger-Ewing: Muted Joy: Learning to Live, Love and Laugh AgainHuffington Post

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp: MomWriter, Cincinnati Family Magazine

Sharon Tjaden-Glass: Walking Through the Fear

Rachel Grise: Erma Bombeck and the Marriott of Despair

Stacey Gustafson: Got My Funny Back at Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop 2016

Stacey Gustafson: Quotable Quotes, featuring Alan Zweibel, Cathryn Michon, Joel Madison, Wendy Liebman, Leighann Lord, Kathy Kinney, Judy Carter and Jenny Lawson

Katie Hamlin: Ermafied

Lori Herlihy: Emulating Erma

Mary Hirsch: Life Without a Name Tag

Ann Hudock: 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and a Belated Thank You

Hillary Ibarra: Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

Natalie Kirland: Erma Bombeck Spirit Still Alive Through Writers’ Workshop

Becky Koop: Whim to Revelation, My Erma Bombeck Workshop Legacy

Myron Kukla: Strange But True Tale

Kate Mahar: A Little Something About My Day Job

Lori Mansell: Queen for a Day

Lisa Marlin: Yes, Mr. Dickens, It Was the Best

Kathryn Mayer: Bathroom Stall to Center Stage: A Writer Finds Her Groove

Mary McCarty: Lesson from Bombeck Workshop: It’s Never Too Late, Dayton Daily News

Kelly McKenzie: If Only I Had the Chance to Meet Erma

Julie Osborne: From Virgin to Queen

Gianetta Palmer: An Ode to the EBWW…2016 Version

Lisa R. Petty: Hermit at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

Susan Pohlman: When Erma Calls

Yvonne Ransel: My Happy Place

Teri Rizvi: Brigadoon for Writers

Julia Roberts: Great Advice From the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

Julia Roberts: The Erma Gap

Julia Roberts: The Power of Erma Listen to podcast here.

Anne Saker: Erma Bombeck Lives on in Admiring Writers, Cincinnati Enquirer

Sheri Saretsky: Mother…Wife…Boss…But Writer?

Sharon Short: Authors to Offer Free Events Tied to Writers’ Workshop, interview with Roy Blount Jr. and Gina Barreca, Dayton Daily News

Pam Sievers: When the Only Thing Left to Do is Write

Suzette Standring: Women: Stop Apologizing As a Preface to Comments, Huffington Post

Molly Stevens: Who Was Erma Bombeck and Why Does She Still Matter?, (Maine) Bangor Daily News

Becky Sydeski: 13 Things to Remember for the Erma Bombeck 2018 Conference

Janine Talbot: EBWW — A Cast of Characters

Janine Talbot: Can Great Minds Who Think Alike Survive Collaboration?

Annette Januzzi Wick: Erma Made Me Miss My Mom

Leah Vidal: Finding Human Interest in the Funny

Jan Wilberg: Three Days with a Name Tag

— Teri Rizvi

Teri Rizvi is the founder of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Worshop at the University of Dayton, where she serves as executive director of strategic communications.

Quotable quotes

(Editor’s Note: Author and blogger Stacey Gustafson offers quotable quotes from the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.)

160401 EBWW 2016 Friday Burgess

Alan Zweibel

• “A lot of comedy comes from the same place pain comes from.”
• “Fun doesn’t happen until it’s ready to be seen by others.”
• “Once you write something, it’s in the hands of a different god.”
• His comment to Roger Ebert after his terrible review of North, “Roger, I just have to tell you that I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate your sweater.”
• “What I remember (about North) is the process, how I felt doing it.”
• “It’s important the we (writers) all get together.”
• “Success is a different animal. The victory is important.”
• “It’s important to get together with writers and share experiences.”
• “I love short stories.”
• “Adrenaline kicks in for deadlines.”

Cathryn Michon

Cathryn Michon

• “Our people are just a hashtag away.”
• “Women don’t always feel comfortable about their bodies.”
• “If you have an idea people really want to talk about, you have the power.”
• “What does an independent book store need? Loyalty.”
• “The way you make impossible stuff happen, like books, blogs, is your core belief that this is something that needs to be out there.”
• “I spend everyday not to be an insecure person…I’m passionate about that.”
• “Creating the work is the most important thing.”
• “Making short video content to support longer projects is a good idea.”
• “We have the power to capture moments now.”
• “Grow your audience by listening and responding.”
• “The goal is trying to be the most authentic.”
• “In the niches are the riches.”

Joel Madison

Joel Madison

• “The writers’ room is like a high school locker room.”
• “Comedy is aggressive. It doesn’t attract women.”
• “Sarcasm doesn’t read. It only works orally.”
• “Every line must serve story, character.”

Wendy Liebman

Wendy Liebman

• “Took me 10 years to get comfortable on stage.”
• “You only have control over you.”
• “Write everything down; write every day.”
• “Perform as much as humanly possible.”
• “You need an audience. They help you shape yourself.”
• “Get on stage as much as possible. Try a new joke each time.”
• “Make it known that you want to perform.”
• “Surround yourself with people who believe in your talent.”

Leighann Lord

Leighann Lord

• “Networking is critical. Talk to other comedians. Be ready for those opportunities.”
• “Generate content everyday. Twitter, Instagram…”
• “Prepare to be flexible.”
• “What if I forget (my lines)? Acknowledge it. Trust yourself. Your brain is going to give you something.”

Kathy Kinney

Kathy Kinney

• “Make your own opportunities. Improv skills will help you in every area of your life.”
• “Find your voice.”
• “Even your own family likes you better when you’re on TV.”
• “Say yes to everything.”

Judy Carter

Judy Carter

• “Suck up. Find someone with a similar audience.”
• “Do material based on an audience.”
• “Be able to have a group that can relate to you.”
• “Form a relationship with your fan base.”
• “Stand-up is not about being perfect. You must be present. Let the audience in. Audience wants to see you be present.”

Jenny Lawson

Jenny Lawson
 • “Worst criticism is inside your own head.”
• “Awkwardness brings us all together.”
• “Success looks different to every single person.”
• “I must be the biggest butt of the joke (in my stories).”

— Stacey Gustafson

Stacey Gustafson is an Amazon bestselling author, humor columnist and blogger who has experienced the horrors of being trapped inside a pair of SPANX. Her book, Are You Kidding Me? My Life With an Extremely Loud Family, Bathroom Calamities, and Crazy Relatives ranked #1 Amazon Best Seller in Parenting & Family Humor and Motherhood. Her short stories have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul and seven books in the Not Your Mother’s Book series. Her work appears in Midlife Boulevard, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and Better After 50. She was named EBWW’s Humor Writer of the Month. Enjoy her blog, Are You Kidding Me? at StaceyGustafson.com or follow on Twitter @RUKiddingStacey.

Got my funny back at Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop 2016

Stacey Gustafson“Hi, I’m the one with the cat that got stuck in the furnace last week,” said Mary Levad Lovstad, one of the first attendees I met at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. At that moment, she’d confirmed that I was in the right place, one where my peeps, cheerleaders and agenda-free friends gathered to listen to incredible stories, and share in our joy and sorrow.

For three nights, every two years, humor writers descend on Dayton, Ohio, to be reinvigorated by Erma’s reminder, “You can write!” I came to find my direction again. My spark had faded, and I need my butt kicked to get out of the funk. For the first time in 21 years, I did not have children to consume my time. With both of my kids in college, pursuing their own dreams, I was out of excuses.

When I arrived, I noticed other writers felt the same way I did, sorely lacking the mental energy needed to write and publish. Social media overwhelmed us, enthusiasm waned and inspiration was in short supply. We needed our tribe to feel whole, likeminded women who would push us forward and pull us up.

As I reconnected with amazing women, we shared our hopes, dreams and adventures since the last Erma workshop. As the attendees rolled into the Marriott, Elaine Ambrose, award-winning author of eight books, sat next to me and asked, “How’s the stand-up going?” Wow, she asked about me! At breakfast, Abbie Gale told me her social media story and the way a hashtag, #IndieFilm, had turned her family upside-down when an independent filmmaker contacted her. Now her son has a role in the upcoming The Moleskin Diary. During lunch, Gina Valley told me about her current projects, like finishing her humor books on parenting disasters, polishing a crime thriller and then casually mentioned that she has seven kids, eight in the summer. If she can find the time to write, what’s my excuse? Stephanie Mark Lewis and I joked around and she shared her latest book idea, one in the same vein as Gone Girl. By the evening, I felt at home, a place saturated with quirky, enterprising, passionate writers. And they welcomed me to their table.

Presenters like the talented Alan Zweibel, winner of multiple Emmy awards and the original writer of Saturday Night Live, provided inspiration during the workshop sessions. He had me at, “I love short stories.” He even took a copy of Are You Kidding Me? My Life With an Extremely Loud Family, Bathroom Calamities, and Crazy Relatives and signed his book, Lunatics, “Hi, Stacey. Can’t wait to read your book. Love, Al.” We were on a first name basis! Joel Madison, writer for Rosanne, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Larry Sanders Show, helped me figure out what I didn’t want to be when I grew up, a screenwriter confined to a small room, like Room, where mostly men gathered for 12-15 hours per day. In his session, we punched up his script and in response to my suggestion, he said, “Really good. That’s exactly what I’m looking for.” Thanks to Wendy Liebman, comedian and semi-finalist on America’s Got Talent, I discovered that I loved the rush of stand-up comedy. On the last evening, I did a four-minute stand-up routine and afterwards she texted, “You are a natural!”

Keynote speakers inspired, as well. Kathy Kinney, Mimi on The Drew Carey Show, and her best friend, Cindy Ratzlaff, author, speaker and entrepreneur, invigorated the workshop. Statements from their book, Queen of Your Own Life, electrified us. “Welcome to the second half of your life, or what we believe can be the best half of your life.” Leighann Lord earned a standing ovation for her keynote as she shared family stories about dealing with aging parents. We applauded when she said, “Finding your passion is the gift you give yourself. Pursuing your passion is the gift you give others.”

On Sunday morning, I lugged my binder, mugs, books and scraps of notes back to the airport. Back to California. I felt refreshed, and stories tumbled in my mind, begging to be written and submitted. The beauty is in the journey, whether or not I get paid. I know I have something to say. Laughter can change the world. The time to do it is now!

It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else. – Erma Bombeck

— Stacey Gustafson

Stacey Gustafson is an Amazon bestselling author, humor columnist and blogger who has experienced the horrors of being trapped inside a pair of SPANX. Her book, Are You Kidding Me? My Life With an Extremely Loud Family, Bathroom Calamities, and Crazy Relatives ranked #1 Amazon Best Seller in Parenting & Family Humor and Motherhood. Her short stories have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul and seven books in the Not Your Mother’s Book series. Her work appears in Midlife Boulevard, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and Better After 50. She was named EBWW’s Humor Writer of the Month. Enjoy her blog, Are You Kidding Me? at StaceyGustafson.com or follow on Twitter @RUKiddingStacey.

He’s not that into me

Stacey GustafsonHiring a good handyman is as tough as trying to lick your elbow.

Heck, finding my husband was faster, easier and less expensive. Unfortunately, my husband doesn’t do home improvement projects in his spare time. A combination of long hours at work and heavy air travel convinced him to leave home repairs to the experts.

After moving into a new house, I Googled “Handyman Services” and found match ups like eHandyman.com and ChristianHandyGuy.com. I had to act fast. The 20-year-old house we’d settled on was crumbling around us. We needed help before we had to sleep in a tent or move in with our parents.

Send me an angel, I secretly prayed to the home-improvement gods.

The first guy I called was your typical older, retired jack-of-all-trades, anxious to earn extra money.

“Hi, I’m Stacey,” I gushed, opening the front door. “You won’t believe how glad I am to see you.” Hallelujah!

“What’s the problem?” he said, all business. We discussed the most critical project on the list — the replacement of broken and missing bathroom tiles. After the discussion, I hired him. The job lasted more than two weeks. He showed up daily, grinding and drilling to completion.

“Thank so much. You’re the best,” I said, laying on compliments as thick as pea soup.

A good man is hard to find.

By week three, he offered a helping hand with a series of minor projects. He hung pictures, fixed a leaky sink and cleaned out the garage. I called him at home the next week to help set up Christmas decorations and lights — the works.

But his attitude changed by week six. I had a sneaky feeling he was cheating on me. He turned up late for our next appointment. And he started taking calls on his cellphone during work.

“Yeah sure, I’ll be over in 15,” he said, whispering into the phone now cupped in his hand.

What’s this? Where’s he think he’s going? Who’s he talking to? I brooded.

With nary an explanation, he hiked up his tool belt, grabbed his toolbox and skedaddled. I waited a few days before I called him again.

“This is Joe. Leave a message,” said his voicemail.

“Joe, please call me. I need you for several small projects. I could really use your help. Thanks.”

Weeks passed. Finally he dropped by to collect his last check. “By the way, I’m raising my rates and I’ll be tied up a few months with a big job.”

And just like that, my handyman dumped me.

After Joe, I found Rusty through his online website, RustyDoesJobs.com. Based on his profile pic, he didn’t look like a mass murderer. Best yet, he could start the next day.

He arrived 15 minutes early. I answered the door wearing ratty sweatpants and my old high school sweatshirt.

“Hi, I’m Rusty. You needed a handyman?” he said, looking me up and down.

Hey, Buddy. Take a picture, it lasts longer! I thought, not happy he arrived early for our date.

Once he put his eyes back in his head, he began the first job, hanging a ceiling fan in the den. From the top of the ladder, he asked, “How far do you want the fan to hang down?”

“I don’t care,” I said, tugging on my ear.

“Six inches or 12 inches?” he asked, with narrow, squinty eyes.

“Uh, I don’t care.” Stop pressuring me.

He settled on 12 inches. Then I proceeded to talk. I couldn’t be stopped. I had no idea if he even answered me. “Did you watch the Giant’s game?” “Can you believe the weather?” “How long have you been a handyman?” “My last handy guy never called me back. I think he’s avoiding me.”

“No kidding,” he said, letting out a gasp.

When he finished replacing the fan then repairing the toilet, he said to use PayPal to pay him, grabbed his things and rushed out.

“Wait. Can I just mail you a check?”

“I don’t use snail mail.”

He’s afraid to give me his address. “I guess this is goodbye?” I yelled after him, receiving no answer in return. Another one bites the dust.

Then my lucky day arrived. My realtor introduced me to Jose and the heavens split open. He had all the necessary qualities — loyalty, strength and sensitivity. And he was hardworking. A match made in honey-do heaven.

Whatever the task, Jose proved to be an expert. And he listened and respected my opinion. “Tell me what you need,” he said, leaning forward and giving me steady eye contact.

“I don’t know how to store all this junk in the garage,” I said.

“No worries. I’ll build you shelves.”

When his cellphone rang, he said, “Lo siento. I’m with a customer. Call you later.”

At the end of the day, he asked, “If you have a problem, I can come back Sunday.”

“Wow, I really appreciate that.” I smiled. “I’ll be OK.”

“Make your list then. See you Tuesday.”

Yeah! He likes me! He really likes me. This was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

— Stacey Gustafson

Stacey Gustafson is an Amazon bestselling author, humor columnist and blogger who has experienced the horrors of being trapped inside a pair of SPANX. Her book, Are You Kidding Me? My Life With an Extremely Loud Family, Bathroom Calamities, and Crazy Relatives ranked #1 Amazon Best Seller in Parenting & Family Humor and Motherhood. Her short stories have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul and seven books in the Not Your Mother’s Book series. Her work appears in Midlife Boulevard, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and Better After 50. She was named EBWW’s Humor Writer of the Month. Enjoy her blog, Are You Kidding Me? at StaceyGustafson.com or follow on Twitter @RUKiddingStacey.

Toilet paper Christmas caper

Stacey GustafsonAll I know is karma’s a bitch. And never cop an attitude with an usher when you’re dragging toilet paper on your shoe.

Last year, my mother braved Midwest blizzards, traffic and the airport to visit my family of four for Christmas in California. Our fun-filled week consisted of spiked eggnog, story telling, old movies and the mandatory trip to San Francisco.

A commercial break during “A Christmas Story” advertised Riverdance, the popular Irish stepdancing group. Redheaded lads and lassies clicked across the stage.

“Forget about seeing the Christmas Carol or the Nutcracker, can we see Riverdance?” asked my mom.

I wanted to make her visit as memorable as possible and sprung for the good seats at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. On Christmas Eve, we bundled up in long woolen coats, lined gloves and scarves and loaded into our van, but before long traffic ground to a snarl.

“Gosh, we’re going to be late.” I said to my husband.

“No worries,” Mike said glancing at the dashboard clock. “We have an hour to park the car and find our seats. Relax.”

We zoomed into the parking garage and hustled across the street to the theater, fifteen minutes to spare. Crowds clogged the lobby like stuffed animals on the shelf at Target. We shouldered to get to the ticket collector at the sold-out event.

“Tickets, please,” said the tall, dark-haired gentleman.

“I’m so excited, “ I said, holding out my ticket.

“Ten minutes ‘til curtain time,” he droned with a sigh. “Better grab your seat lady.”

We raced to the mezzanine level on the second floor. “I’ll meet you inside,” I said to my hubby. “Going to use the restroom.” He gave me my ticket, grabbed the kids’ hands and entered, my mother racing to keep up.

A sign pointed downward for “Mademoiselle.” “You’ve got to be kidding?” I mumbled to myself. The bathroom, located down two flights of stairs in a dreary sub-basement, had a line that coiled around the staircase like a serpent.

“Excuse me,” I asked a buxom gal with dangly earrings. “Is this for the ladies’ room?”

“Yep, only three stalls,” she said with a shake of her head.

Gotta go. Too late to turn back.

The five-minute bell tolled and concerned faces stared back at me. Oh crap, I thought, I’ll never make it now.

The line unexpectedly opened up. I dashed in and out then scooted past the panicky crowd to the second floor.

Outside the mezzanine entrance, I spotted the usher, a pie-faced older woman with limp, mousey hair and beady eyes. Wearing tight khaki pants, a navy blazer and low-heeled pumps, she cut off my entrance with her meaty arm.

“Sorry, doors closed,” she said with a sneer, holding a flashlight. “You’ll have to wait for a break before you can enter.”

“Oh, you don’t understand,” I whined. “It wasn’t my fault. The bathroom line was too long.”

“Rules are rules. You. Must. Wait.”

I peered past her shoulder pads and caught a flash of tartan and black tap shoes.

“Try and stop me,” I warned and pushed her aside with my forearm like an NFL linebacker. Her flashlight clattered down the hallway. The darkness absorbed me as I groped my way to Row B.

“You almost missed the beginning,” said my guy as I plopped down on my seat. He grabbed my clammy hand. “Are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

If you consider assault and battery no big deal.

After two and half hours of rapid-fire footwork from mini-skirted girls and leather-panted boys, the crowd stood on their feet for the final bravo.

We squeezed out the exit and I spotted a vacant handicapped restroom on the main level. I knew I shouldn’t have ordered a large double cappuccino at intermission. The drive home was over an hour. Hubby took one look at my face and said, “No way. We’re in a hurry. Want to beat the crowd.”

Despite his protests, I lurched inside the tiny bathroom. I finished as fast as an Irish jig, swished my hands under the water, yanked down a paper towel and rushed out the doorway. Standing a few feet from the bathroom exit was Pie Face. With her flash light. She glared at me and then her mouth curled into a smirk.

What’s so funny, Shoulder Pads?

She aimed the heavy duty LED Maglite at my shoes and then my face. Through the light, I could barely make out my family leaning against the wall. My daughter was doubled over in laughter. “Oh. My. God,” she said. “Look down.”

Stuck to the bottom of my shoe was a five-foot toilet paper trail, double ply. My family watched in horror and delight as I bent to yank it off. I brushed my skirt smooth and felt the slight crinkle of tissue paper. “For God’s sake. Let me help you,” said my mother. She reached around my body to pluck off a toilet seat cover from the back of my skirt.

I pulled my coat over my head and bolted into the crowd toward the exit doors.

“Come back soon,” said Pie-Face with a wide grin.

— Stacey Gustafson

Stacey Gustafson is an author, humor columnist and blogger who has experienced the horrors of being trapped inside a pair of SPANX. Her work has appeared in Chicken Soup for the SoulNot Your Mother’s Books, Midlife Boulevard, More Magazine, Better After 50, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, Lost in Suburbia and on her daughter’s bulletin board. She lives in California with her husband and two teenagers who provide an endless supply of inspiration. Her book, Are You Kidding Me? My Life With an Extremely Loud Family, Bathroom Calamities, and Crazy Relatives, was released September 2014, available on Amazon. Visit Stacey at StaceyGustafson.com or follow her on Twitter @RUKiddingStacey.

War in the skies

Stacey GustafsonFlying has become tortuous since X-ray body scans, flight cancellations, smaller seats and lost luggage. We travelers are sometimes treated worse than cargo.

But there are strategies to employ in order to survive flying. Southwest Airlines offers an open-seating policy where customers can grab any unclaimed seat. On a recent flight from San Jose to St. Louis, I hatched a scheme. I waited for my number to be called at the terminal, rushed to the first available empty row and grabbed an aisle seat. Then I set a trap like a spider to solicit a seatmate.

Anyone skinny, without kids or a large handbag, and who appeared germ free met my prerequisites. I spotted a possibility and announced to her in a loud voice, “Excuse me. Would you like to sit here?”

“Oh, thanks. How thoughtful,” she said. More like self-serving. But on airlines with assigned seating, your seatmate is a crapshoot. Take a recent Delta flight. Without checking my ticket, I was confident I was in the right row and grabbed a prized aisle seat. I stowed my books, attached the seat belt and waited. And watched. A rather portly man came barreling down the aisle, eyeing my area.

Oh, God, please no. Just keep walking, I thought. Let’s just get it out here — one size seat does not fit all. He lumbered by.

I survived the next wave of crying kids, sneezing teenagers and businessmen with briefcases. A slim, petite woman smiled in my direction. Jackpot, come on over. She fumbled to check her ticket and said, “You’re in my seat.” I checked and rechecked my ticket. She checked hers again. Damn, I had the wrong seat.

I returned to the main aisle and moved down a few rows. Like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a man over 6’4” and 250 pounds was in the aisle seat of my row. I squeezed past Big Guy, climbed over his huge shoes, oversized coat, bulging briefcase and big bag of greasy take-out food. I avoided eye contact out of pure irritation.

Then the flight attendant announced, “Put away all electronics. Buckle your seat belt.”

Mr. Big dug around his seat searching for the belt, knocking me in the chest with his mammoth elbow. “Sorry. Can’t find the darn seat belt.”

A few more jabs to my ribs, and the search was over. I glanced out the corner of my eye to watch him buckle in, no seat belt extender necessary. Whoosh, like a can of biscuits, flesh exploded over and under the armrest and filled in all available spaces.

After removing his shoes and stuffing the extra blanket under my footrest, he asked, “Honey, could you please turn on the overhead light?”

That was his opportunity to snatch my armrest. My skinny arms were no match for his muscular, oversized appendages. I tried to ignore my discomfort and took a short nap. When I awoke, I discovered my tray table down, crowded with a cup of water, a can of soda, a coffee mug with the contents half finished, and The New York Times. An iPad was squeezed to the side, the cord dangling across my lap.

I let out a sigh and fought to keep my mouth shut. Despite its size, the tiny bathroom would be a welcomed reprieve from the cramped setting.

“I need to go,” I said, and rolled my eyes as he removed all his items from my tray table. Then he stood and let me by.

Over the loudspeaker, the flight attendant said, “Due to turbulence, you’ll need to return to your seat, please.”

You’ve got to be kidding.

In my hurry to be reseated, Big Guy moved to the middle seat. Despite his “nice” gesture, sitting in the aisle seat proved as bad. He leaned on me the rest of the flight, bending my spine like a case of scoliosis. I was so far into the aisle my head got clubbed by the drink cart.

Soon our captain announced, “Prepare for landing.”

Once on the ground, I gave Big Guy a smooch on the lips. Then I whispered in my husband’s ear, “Thanks for the terrific vacation,” squeezed his arm and motioned for our kids in another row to wait for us at the exit.

Maybe next time I can be upgraded to first class.

— Stacey Gustafson

Stacey Gustafson is an author, humor columnist and blogger who has experienced the horrors of being trapped inside a pair of SPANX. Her work has appeared in Chicken Soup for the SoulNot Your Mother’s Books, Midlife Boulevard, More Magazine, Better After 50 and on her daughter’s bulletin board. Her book, Are You Kidding Me? My Life With An Extremely Loud Family, Bathroom Calamities, and Crazy Relatives, will be released September 2014. She lives in California with her husband and two teens. Visit StaceyGustafson.com and Twitter @RUKiddingStacey.

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Reflections of Erma