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A parent’s alphabet

Writer and illustrator Rachel Barlow brings her typical, too-busy life to her first book, A is for All-Nighter. From model mom crackpot and Funny Farm candidate comes an uplifting and poignant tribute to the miracle of parenthood a tongue-in-cheek look at the sillier ABCs of parenthood. Click here for a video preview.

The tale of Sir Big Dad

Rachel BarlowNobility is often born, but it does not always happen the way you might think. Certainly one can be born into a noble house. (One can have nobility conferred upon oneself, but that’s not really being born is it?)  As I discovered this last week, however, there is another way nobility is created, and as in tales of old, mine involve cunning, dedication and even a dragon.

Once upon a time a few years ago, the Big Guy and I opened our oil bill and, after finding out no one wanted to buy our used body parts, designed a house that didn’t need oil or propane.  We ended up building a cave — a house buried on three sides, powered mostly by sun and heated by our Kitchen Queen.

To the casual observer, Kitchen Queen may look like an ordinary cast-iron wood cookstove, but she is really a dragon.  Now, you may not know this because dragons get a bad rap in a lot of books and movies, but most of them — such as Kitchen Queen’s black-and-chrome variety — are actually quite friendly.  Kitchen Queen, for example, keeps a fire burning in her belly, usually using it to heat our water and bake goodies.

Once in a while, however, the gremlins that live in our utility room get restless, and the water in Kitchen Queen’s heating box fails to circulate.  She builds up steam, and then (she’s a very lady-like dragon) she’ll blow off the steam in a long low squeal (she swears it’s a burp).

Last weekend the gremlins got restless.

The sun was setting when a few bubbly burps escaped Kitchen Queen. We figured she would blow off a little steam and then the water would circulate again and all would be well, so we went back to cartoons. Kitchen Queen burped again and then fell to grumbling about something. Suddenly she roared and blasted the wall with steam from her backside.

The Big Guy rose from the recliner, trying to soothe Kitchen Queen for a moment before arming himself with a screwdriver and charging into the utility room. An accomplished DIY-er, the Big Guy fearlessly flipped switches and pushed buttons on the machinery that converts sun to electricity and the gadgets that pull water from the well to the house.

Back he went to Kitchen Queen to see what was causing her to alternately circulate water and then hold it to convert to steam, but his close inspection offended her sensibilities, and instead of a burp, this time she wet her pants.  All over the kitchen floor. Seriously. There was a two-inch-deep puddle from one end of the kitchen to the other.illustration

Ironically, the gremlins had rendered us not powerless but waterless. Thus began a series of labors so terrifying even Hercules would have thought twice (the Big Guy even had to get out the owner’s manuals).  The pump in our well was disabled, but the Big Guy soon realized the real test would be keeping toilets flushing and family mentally sound as we waited for the parts for the repair to arrive.

For the better part of a week, he hauled wood with 14-year-old Thing1 and water from a neighbor’s house with the aid of 8-year-old Thing2. (Still hobbling with a cane, I offered little but financial support). Without complaint and surviving on rations of oatmeal and microwaved dinners on paper plates, the Big Guy nurtured the family spirits while navigating the logistics of waterlessness and getting up for work at the usual time.

It was near nightfall when the part arrived a week later, and the Big Guy and the plumber pulled out the well pump for a repair that took less than a couple hours. The plumber left, and the Big Guy pushed buttons and flipped switches until the gremlins were thoroughly vanquished. We fed and watered Kitchen Queen and celebrated victory with scalding showers.

In honor of Big Guy’s pluck last week, I created (birthed, if you will) a new noble rank:  Unholy Order of the Eternal Missing Sock.  I immediately indulged in a bit of nepotism and conferred the knightly (that’s a word, right?) title of ‘Sir Big Dad’ on the Big Guy. Now as we happily take hot showers for granted again, I’m more sure than ever that there is courage — and even nobility — in laughing through the everyday battles that keep a family going when they’re ready to tear out their very dirty hair.

illustration

As a great philosopher once said, “You might think I’m a nut case, but I’m not the only one.”  And, if your family, like a good candy bar, has one or two nuts in it that have kept you going through a domestic disaster, you might be ready to join us.  Mismatched socks optional.

— Rachel Barlow

Blogger Rachel Barlow describes herself as “a midlife crisis waiting to happen, closet nomad and middle-aged work-at-home-mother of two.” Her life is “wrapped up in peanut butter sandwiches, fat (sometimes losing it), bills and blogging (her way) to sanity.”

Buckets

Rachel BarlowThe sweat from a few hours of cleaning was beginning to cool as they collapsed on the green recliner sofa.

“All I want to do,” said Dad, “is keep my feet up for the rest of the night. What’s on?” Mom handed him the remote and put her own foot rest up.

“Nothing sounds good. How about a few episode of ‘That Trite Sitcom’ for background noise, ” she suggested.

Dad reclined all the way back, grunting his approval. Mom clicked to the play-it-now channel and closed her eye as the opening credits played. She pulled a nearby superhero-themed fleece blanket over her legs, vaguely registering that a heavier, living blanket was wrapping around her remote-control arm.

“Oh, I love this show,” chirped 8-year-old  Thing-Two. He adjusted his red satin cape so that it covered Mom and himself. He then spent most of the progrm squirming as he tried to find the ultimate snuggle position. Mom decided it was nice that her youngest child was still young enough to have not put away childish things like cuddling. Thing-Two was still trying every hug technique known to science as Mom began to drift off.

“Awe,” Thing-Two sighed. “Mom, mom! Look at that baby.” He patted Mom’s arm gently and then firmly until she  opened her eyes. “Isn’t he cute?” Thing-Two gestured at the TV.

“Very cute,” Mom mumbled and closed her eyes again.

“I want to be a dad someday,” Thing-Two said, wrapping Mom’s arm around himself.

“Someday,” said Mom, “you’ll be a great dad, Buddy.”

illustration“Yeah, I can’t wait,” said Thing-Two. “It’s number 4 on my bucket list.” Mom’s eyes opened wide. She twisted her head to look at Thing-Two’s face and saw Dad had focused his attention on their son.

“You have a bucket list?” Mom asked.

“Of course,” answered Thing-Two.  “I’ve been working on it for years.  I want to grow up and marry a sweet girl and be a dad and dance and have a…”

“How do you now what a bucket list is?” Mom interrupted.

“I’ve always known about them,” he answered. “Don’t you have a bucket list, Mom?”

Dad was listening quietly and smiled at Mom.

“Well, I’ve heard of them, and I could start one,” she stammered. “But we’ve done a lot of bucket stuff.” She looked at Dad and shrugged, hoping he would have something to add.

Thing-Two looked into Mom’s eyes. He was silent for a few minutes, inspecting her  face.

“Mommy, you really ought to have a bucket list,” he said. He squirmed to face the TV and see the baby again.

“Otherwise you might spend the rest of your life doing nothing but cleaning and siting on the couch.”

— Rachel Barlow

Blogger Rachel Barlow describes herself as “a midlife crisis waiting to happen, closet nomad and middle-aged work-at-home-mother of two.” Her life is “wrapped up in peanut butter sandwiches, fat (sometimes losing it), bills and blogging (her way) to sanity.”

They grow up so fast

Rachel BarlowEarly last spring a little boy led his family out of their cocoon/cave/house on a walk up a forest-flanked road.

He was seven then. He’s seven now, but the creature that twirled and danced up a road glittering with magic spring sunlight hitting millions of melted droplets on leaves and twigs is no longer with us. That person found magic swords everywhere we looked. He found quests to complete and saved his mom and dad from their winter doldrums.

On the way back, the boy and his family noticed a mommy and a daddy turkey crossing the road (They knew it had to be a mommy and daddy because they all heard the mom ask the dad if the new spring feathers made her look fat).  The boy and his family were so excited about seeing another family emerging from their cocoon – a sure sign that spring was on the way – that they missed a golden opportunity to ask them why poultry crosses the road.

Then the turkeys disappeared into the forest and the family continued on, not realizing that the turkeys were omens. Or at least a signal that the family had reached the beginning of the end of the beginning or possibly the beginning of a new beginning. Either way, it was an auspicious occasion and the human family completely missed it.

That, not spring and not time, is when the boy – the little magic man – began to change.

Blog-turkeys-550x260A few weeks later as the family was coming home the turkey family – an actual family of a mom and dad and quite a few babies – crossed the road.  After a sitting silently trying to think of a way to explain to the boy why human mommies couldn’t lay that many eggs at one time, the human mommy waited for turkeys to cross the road for that thing they just had to and for the boy to go back to torturing his older brother so she could keep on driving.

All summer the human family kept bumping into the turkey family. They met each other on the road and saw each other across the garden.  Somehow they never got around to saying hello because the turkey family was secretly carrying out a plot to evolve the seven-year-old boy.

Here’s the proof.  Each time the human family saw the turkey family, the boy was forced to ask new questions, and with each question it would have been clear to the un-overscheduled observer that he was changing.

In May:  “How do the turkeys potty train their kids?”

In June: “Where do they sleep at night?”

In July: “Why isn’t turkey season in November? (These are the hard questions a parent just can’t answer.)

In August: “Why do the turkeys always have to cross road when I need to go to the bathroom?”

And finally in September: “Can I have some money?”

He was definitely changing, and the human mom blamed the turkeys. The boy was evolving so quickly she wasn’t even sure if he’d want a theme birthday party this year.

Then one day she looked up from her desk and out the window towards the garden.  The turkey family was crossing the driveway, waving at or taunting the family dog who was skipping back and forth in front of the window as if she had to go to the bathroom, and the mom realized that the turkeys had changed even more than the boy had in the last few months.

They weren’t just a family. They looked like a flock.  They were a flipping flock of turkeys heading for her garden.

Fortunately, the mommy turkey still had a better handle on her overgrown offspring than the human mom had on hers because they politely heeded her instructions to only eat the weeds and not ruin their dinner before they got into the main part of the forest.

The human mom watched the flock disappear, one turkey at a time, into the decorative weeds she called shrubs that grew at the edge of the woods. Then she noticed that the seven-year-old boy had sidled up next to her and wormed her arm around his shoulders in an appropriated hug.

“Wow,” he said. “They grow up so fast.”

The human mommy wasn’t sure if her eyes were suddenly moist from the smell of the boy’s socks or some other illness, but the little boy spoke quickly enough to forestall any deeper contemplation.

“Mommy,” he said using the term that every child uses when they’re looking for something. “Mommy, can I invite my friends on the bus to my birthday party, too? I already said nine of them could come with the kids in my class.”

But this isn’t just a story about turkeys or kids.  t’s a story about the meaning of all life. Or at least a little part of it.

The upshot is that you shouldn’t get down wondering if your seven-year-old is getting too old for another theme birthday because that flock of turkeys is in the yard looking for the party and wondering if, even if it’s not the boy’s birthday, should we celebrate something anyway?

So, there you have it. Life is like a flock of turkeys. You never know when they’re gonna cross your road and there’s nothing you can do about it except put it in neutral and enjoy the chance for a breather.

They do grow up so fast, after all.

— Rachel Barlow

Blogger Rachel Barlow describes herself as “a midlife crisis waiting to happen, closet nomad and middle-aged work-at-home-mother of two.” Her life is “wrapped up in peanut butter sandwiches, fat (sometimes losing it), bills and blogging (her way) to sanity.”

The DIY PSA

Rachel BarlowThing1 is going to hit high school next fall, and, even in out-of-the-way Arlington, Vermont, stories of adolescent bacchanals fill most parents with dread.

Thing1 and I have talked about booze and consequences, but every once in a while I get an unexpected bit of help helping him resist temptation.

On the TV, little yellow minions were shepherding a dozen kinds of fruit down a conveyor belt into a jam-making vat. When the fruit hit the vat, the stars of Despicable Me2 began stomping the grapes and apples into jam. One of the minions got stuck in a jar on the way to the next step, and 7-year-old Thing2’s curiosity crested.

“Is that why the jam tastes so bad?” he asked.

“Because there’s a million kinds of fruit in one jar?” Thing1 asked looking for clarification.

“No, because they’re stepping on the fruit with their feet.”

“Maybe,” said Thing1.

“I think it’s the conveyor belt residue,” I said. Then I added, “Anyway, that’s how they still make wine some places.” Thing2 gave me a funny look.cartoon

“They step on it?” he asked. “Is that why wine tastes so bad?”

I was quiet for a moment and then said, “Ye-e-e-ss.” Thing1 doesn’t really like the taste of wine, but he was dubious about the source of the bad taste. Thing2 was quiet as he mulled over the science of wine making.

“So basically wine is just foot jam with water,” he said after a few more minutes of watching the movie quietly.

“Wow,” groaned Thing1. “I’ll never be able to get that thought out of my head when I look at a bottle of wine again.”

When my own stomach finished doing back flips over the thought that I’ve been drinking glorified fermented fruity foot-jam-juice with my pasta all these years, I gave Thing2 a quiet kiss on the head as Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ began to play on the TV screen.

— Rachel Barlow

Blogger Rachel Barlow describes herself as “a midlife crisis waiting to happen, closet nomad and middle-aged work-at-home-mother of two.” Her life is “wrapped up in peanut butter sandwiches, fat (sometimes losing it), bills and blogging (her) way to sanity.”

Crime and punishment

Thing1 is being punished. He’s being really punished for the first time in recent memory.

For most of the last 12 years we’ve been pretty lucky. For most of that time, he’s been good-natured and willing to follow the rules we set down. Infractions occur, of course, but for the most part, they’ve been small enough that an empty, humorous threat to send him to military school puts a stop to restaurant antics or begging. When we do lay down the law, Thing1 usually plays the part of the gentle giant tolerating a well-meaning but misdirected mother and goes along. He seems to understand that — even when he thinks we’re totally nuts — we’re on his side.

That all changed today, as the fallout from a less-than-stellar report card caused the first serious fissure in his faith in our good intentions.

All kids have an Achilles heel as individual as their personalities, and Thing1’s is his love of all things computer. He has begun cracking open code on favorite games and spending hours Skyping with friends, gabbing about hardware and how to improve their favorite video game and which is the best OS for their purposes. It is a hobby and avocation that could be come a vocation. Now, however, it is bordering on addiction. So, 15 minutes after the Big Guy and I read the report card, we had an intervention and pulled the plug.

Our normally tolerant 12-year-old reacted like any addict who was being cut off would.

He denied. Then he rationalized — the report card, that is. Then he protested. And finally, grudgingly, he accepted the reality that his computer time would be restricted to school work.

Grudging acceptance has now taken the form of the silent treatment. He still obeys the easy rules without defiance. Gone, however, is the good-natured demeanor. Smiles are quickly extinguished when we make eye contact — even if we caused the smile. From his room, we can occasionally hear muted muttering that tells us we hit that heel with perfect aim.

At first, we did pat ourselves on the back for being such clever parents. We felt guilty for about 10 seconds after we shut down his favorite hobby, but, contrary to his belief, we’re not enjoying our victory. I know he needs the consequences, but I hate seeing him unhappy. I know there are things we can control in our own house, and there things we can’t. This is one of the things we’re supposed to control. And while it hasn’t lead to happiness, it is giving me a bit of serenity in a way that I would never have thought possible when I was a teenager.

As the bearer of numerous crappy report cards, I was also the recipient of many groundings (pointless and redundant for Thing1 who lives in the middle of the woods) and privilege losses. I remember the profound sense of betrayal when I lost a favorite social outlet. Now, walking this mile in my parents’ moccasins, I’m finding yet another new understanding of their perspectives. There’s no forgiveness, of course — there’s nothing to forgive when someone’s looking out for your future. Instead, this is one of those moments when my mom and dad are getting an unexplained warm feeling in the back of their necks as their daughter writes that they were right about many things — even when it wasn’t fun to be right.

—Rachel Barlow

Blogger Rachel Barlow describes herself as “a midlife crisis waiting to happen, closet nomad and middle-aged work-at-home-mother of two.” Her life is “wrapped up in peanut butter sandwiches, fat (sometimes losing it), bills and blogging (her) way to sanity.”

Reflections of Erma