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Top comedians share their stand up success strategies

Berk-Nancy-230x287I recently had the opportunity to chat with some of the funniest women in stand up for my iTunes podcast Whine At 9 and Parade Magazine online column Showbiz Analysis. Wendy Liebman, Heather McDonald, Loni Love and Iliza Shlesinger shared plenty of hilarious stories as well as some valuable advice for anyone pursuing a comedy career — including those in the EBWW community (Let’s face it, EBWW stand up night is one of the most unique and fun features of the workshop!) Below are five stand up strategies that seem to have helped these talented women land on the biggest stages in show business and prove that women can rock the room as well as, or better than, the guys on the block.

1. Find your own unique voice.

In an industry where some might consider mimicking the style of other success stories, these comedians have made their mark and their money by being themselves and emphasizing their differences. Last Comic Standing winner Iliza Shlesinger believes that  connecting with audiences requires you to “give them something authentic.” Comic and Chelsea Lately’s Heather McDonald says, “I just never saw anyone that was like me up there.” Focusing on bringing her own personality to the stage, McDonald admits, “That is an exaggerated persona of myself, but it is really me.” Regarding her comedy image as a party-lover, McDonald laughs, “Sure I’ve gotten drunk at company functions — because my company’s Chelsea Lately, so it’s hard not to.”

2. It’s all about teamwork and being a team player.

From the home front to the stage and screen, all of these comedians have found the power in building a strong social support network and being team players. Their careers may appear to be solo acts, but there were plenty of people in the background who helped them make this happen. For most, women comedy mentors helped provide them with opportunities that have opened professional doors. Talk show favorite and author of Love Him or Leave Him, But Don’t Get Stuck With the Tab Loni Love credits women like Wendy Williams, Bethany Frankel, Chelsea Handler and Ellen Degeneres with giving her the opportunity to cut her comedy chops. Says Love, “They allowed me to get the training. And they’ve been very encouraging to me.”

When Heather McDonald’s not doing stand up, she’s busy collaborating with other comedy professionals. Notes E!’s After Lately actress, “When you’re able to collaborate with other people, it helps your ego be put to the side sometimes, because you just want to have fun and you want the funniest show. And so I do feel that it is great that I can do both and that I enjoy doing both.”

Of course behind every great and happy comedian, there’s usually an understanding partner or family member. “I have a great husband who doesn’t mind that I talk a lot about him in my act,” says McDonald about her spouse who has never discouraged her from tackling a gig. Because life on the comedy highway often takes you far from home, McDonald recognizes that her career involves a lot of external support. Says the comic whose first one-hour comedy special I Don’t Mean To Brag… will air on Showtime in August, “I am fortunate enough to have a great support system and that’s why I’m able to do what I do.”

3. Do your homework and put in your hours.

Stand up might look like fun, but success in the business comes to those who’ve honed their craft and clocked endless comedy hours on stage and off. Working different venues, analyzing audience reactions and testing out material are only some of the critical pieces of the puzzle. Creating new content is the other. Using the same joke sets over and over again might help you polish your work, but if you can’t create new material quickly, the game is over before it even begins. Perhaps no situation showcases this as well as NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.” With respect to stand up on TV, “Last Comic Standing” winner and the woman behind the comedy special War Paint, Iliza Shlesinger says the tough part is “the ability to take a scalpel to your set, get your point across and be likable in 90 seconds or 30 seconds or a minute 20, however long your set is. There’s a lot of math that goes into it — a lot of math and a lot of skill. So it’s a lot of lightning in a bottle.”

Loni Love is proof that a comedy career doesn’t happen overnight. She’d done stand up in college, but her initial career took her in a different direction. Says Love, who, by day worked as an engineer and developed her comedy act at night before taking the leap into full time show business, “It’s been a long haul. It may seem to some people that have never heard of me, ‘Oh she just popped up on the scene,’ but I’ve been working on this for some time.” Adds the host of Fox’s The Real, “It’s taken a while, but you know it’s been that type of ride. I didn’t know anybody in the industry. I’ve learned. I’ve networked. I’ve worked hard. I’ve written material. I’ve traveled all across the United States.”

4. Get over the need to be liked.

Iliza Shlesinger may be the youngest comic to nab the title of “Last Comic Standing,” but she’s got the wisdom part down. What advice would she give those who hope to follow in her funny footsteps? Shlesinger says, “My only advice is to just put on blinders. And you can’t worry about when other comics aren’t nice to you, when other comics don’t like you, when bookers don’t like you. No one’s ever going to like you 100 percent because it’s comedy and it’s subjective.”

5. Be flexible and be ready for your opportunity.

Wendy Liebman has been rolling with her comedy career for nearly three decades and she’s always open to new opportunities. The busy wife, stepmom and star of the TV special Taller on TV notes, “I think personally I have been very safe — like holding onto something. Just figuring it out for 30 years — almost 30 years.” This summer she is a finalist headed for the stage at Radio City Music Hall for NBC’s America’s Got Talent live auditions. “I think I’m ready now to expand, to grow,” says Liebman, who would love to do a sitcom in the future.

Loni Love thinks the key to comedy success is being ready. “You know, eventually you get breaks and you try to be ready. And I just tell everybody, especially women, ‘Just be ready for your break.’”

How flexible should you be when you feel like you’re over 30 and time might not be on your side? Says Liebman, “I think it’s never too late to start anything except maybe being a ballerina.”

Listen to all of the comedy conversations on iTunes, WhineAt9.com and Stitcher Radio.

— Dr. Nancy Berk

Dr. Nancy Berk is a clinical psychologist who’s been on a creative roll since leaving full-time academia. An online columnist for Parade Magazine‘s “Showbiz Analysis” and host of the celebrity podcast “Whine At 9,” she also blogs for The Huffington Post and USA Today College. Nancy’s humor has landed her on stage at places like TEDx and her book, College Bound and Gagged, in the feature film Admission starring Tina Fey. She’s served on the faculty at the 2012 and 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

Wine, whine, wine

Anne BardsleyThere are so many quizzes now on Facebook: “What kind of animal are you? What kind of animated character are you? How bitchy are you?”

So many choices! I don’t take those tests. I don’t care if I’m a lion, a tiger or a bear…oh my! I don’t care if I’m Miss Piggy or Doc McStuffins. I can save the time taking the bitchy quiz and tell you right off the bat that I can be bitchy, but that’s usually when I’m provoked. I’m working on that. I find my descriptions of myself elsewhere.

I like to read wine bottles. They intrigue me. I’m not a connoisseur to actually taste what they proclaim the vineyard produces, but I love the descriptions they use. I never taste the licorice, mint or aromatic flowers. The tannin escapes me as well. It seems if it’s wine, I drink it. I think I may find my own personal charming description on these labels, and it will suit me perfectly.

White Zinfandel combines crisp refreshment with bright fruit. It has flavors of fresh strawberry and hints of white peach. Now doesn’t that sound just like me at a garden party? I probably had woken up from a nap so I looked crisp. I must have worn an apple red sundress. And I probably had strawberry shortcake with a slice of white peach along with a goblet of White Zin. Call me Mrs. Zin. (not Sin)

Cabernet from Bordeaux professes the flavor is comparable to well, you decide. Imagine you filled a leather bag with a pound of black cherries and held it close to your chest while you rolled down a hill. Yum! Truthfully, after a few glasses of wine, I might be game to try this, providing it is a small hill. It is also best served with meats and high-fat food. What’s not to love?

The other night I enjoyed a Cabernet which read, “Enjoy while young and sassy.” At first I thought that was a horrible sales technique. What about all of us older people? I drank it anyway. I always feel young and sassy when I drink wine. My friend said they meant the wine was young and sassy, not the drinker. Who knew?

Merlot is full bodied and cheaper than the Cabernet, but it has a smoother finish. It is affordable and underrated, much like myself.

Riesling has a colorful German heritage that’s had a bad reputation in the ‘80s. My mother–in-law would love to discuss my reputation in that time period at length; however, she’s in Heaven now (I hope). We finally get along famously.

Unoaked Chardonnay has a brand named “Wine With No Pants.” They describe it as getting saucy without pants. No need for me to explain the comparison to moi.

There is also a Petet-Vidure that drinks well without food. Hello! Is this me or what?

I can finally describe myself to you.

I am a full-bodied, crisp, rolling-down-the-hill with a pound of cherries kind of girl. I’m smooth, colorful and had a bad reputation in the ‘80s (according my mother-in-law only). I’m affordable and underrated. I can get saucy with or without pants on. …and I drink well without food.

Take that, Facebook!

— Anne Bardsley

Anne Bardsley, of St. Petersburg, Fla., is the author of How I Earned My Wrinkles, a collection of humorous and sentimental stories about marriage, motherhood and menopause. She lives in a menopausal world with a husband who gives her wrinkles. When people ask her age, she sometimes tells them her bra size. “36-C,” she says, “was a wonderful age.”

I’m unqualified

View More: http://beckhadrakephotography.pass.us/newbeginningsI recently read a blog post about how important it is to teach toddlers about their body parts. Apparently, simply knowing the correct words for male and female genitals deters predators who know that these children will be more able to report being touched inappropriately.

Cut to me sweating profusely. My daughter is almost four, and unless ‘front hiney’ and ‘back hiney’ are the scientific words for the female anatomy, I think I might have failed here.

I took the recommendation from the article about a specific book geared toward small children called Amazing You! (by Dr. Gail Saltz) that teaches basics about private parts and reproduction.

I wanted to be one of those parents who was all “My kids can talk to me about ANYTHING,” but, apparently, the truth is they can talk to me about anything as long as it is not related to…. In my pre-read, I confirmed that this book was LOADED with ALL the parts, leaving nothing out, but hey, that’s what I wanted, right?

I quickly realized that I was not only unprepared, but unable (even with the help of a book), to effectively teach my daughter about private parts. After assessing my lacking skills, I was able to pinpoint several reasons for my ineptitude:

1. Time of Day Hinders Me.  I put off reading the book for several days telling myself that it was never the right time of day. I mean, who wants to have that talk first thing in the morning? I at least need to have coffee before I bring up scrotums with a 3-year-old girl, thank you. I usually read to the children before nap and bedtime, so I figured that would work, but then I felt weird about sending my daughter off to bed with visions of labias dancing in her head. It was just never the right time.

2. Boy Parts Make Me Giggle. On my first read aloud with my daughter, I began to rush, knowing that my husband would soon be making his way down the hall to join us after tucking our son in. I was uncomfortable enough reading it to her, but there was no way I could keep it together with him in the room reading sentences like “Inside the sac under your penis are soft balls called testicles.” First of all, since when is the sack just a sac? Where did the “K” go? Was it ever there? Why does the lack of a “K” make me want to laugh even more?

I had just finished with several pages of penis when I came to a page that had a baby, a small boy and a man all drawn anatomically correct and naked.My daughter points to one of the penis trifecta and says “nipple!”

Me: “No, it’s a penis.” (Please note that there was NO nipple talk in this entire book, so I have no idea where this was coming from.)

Girl: “Look at the little nipple!”

Me: “It’s a penis.”

Girl: (Her voice getting more delighted and pointing her finger at it): “He’s got a little nipple!!”

Me: (Flipping back a page to the penis stuff and starting to laugh): “Penis!”

Husband comes down the hall within earshot.

Girl: “Nipple. Nipple. Nipple.”

Me: (laughing now) “Penis. Penis. Penis.”

Husband: (Looks in the room, walks over and sees penis illustration. Quickly exits forever.)

3. Girl Parts Gross Me Out. There are certain words in the English language that gross me out. I don’t like to say them and avoid them whenever possible. They make my throat close a little and I feel queasy. Stool, clot, nugget…you get the picture. A large portion of these gag words are parts of the female anatomy including uterus, womb, falopian, etc. Once my daughter found out that the baby lives in there for nine months, I was forced to repeat uterus 356 times in response to her questions. I thought it might desensitize me. I was wrong.

4. I Am Hostile When It Comes To Childbirth Questions. I didn’t have the worst childbirth experience, but it wasn’t great, either.  A 30-hour induced labor, ending in a not quite emergency C-section with some nasty follow-up complications, gave me a bad taste for birthing babies. The book explains it as follows:

“The baby will come out of the mother’s vagina, which is very, very stretchy. It stretches wide enough for the baby to come out and then goes back to the way it was before.”

I was at a loss for words.  Since I had a C-section, I couldn’t speak to vajayjay elasticity, but I can assure you that nothing on your body is “like it was before” after childbirth, including  a vagina that has been stretched around the back of your head to allow for the child to exit.

Luckily, while I can’t talk vagina very well with my preschooler, I can lie.  I backed up this load of crap convincingly. She looked in the direction and then cast me a shifty look as if to say “there’s no way,” but we seemed to silently agree that it was just better to drop it for now.

5. I Live In Fear of Kitchen Table Testicle Talk (or KTTT). I think my final failure centers around my inability to really embrace this topic and make it acceptable discussion anywhere other than during the book reading. I am haunted by the possibility of sperm, urethras and penises rearing their ugly heads (pun totally intended) at the dinner table.  More specifically I am horrified that my daughter will speak of them anywhere in public, or where my parents (specifically Dad) might be present.  Although a wonderful man and in very good health, one ill-timed “scrotum” might be enough to end him.

Let’s reflect on how I can improve. Going forward, I will stifle my laughter and gag reflex. I will cover the appropriate places to talk about birds’ and bees’ equipment. I’ll get into the truth about childbirth when she gets older. As far as time of day, I think I will try to stick with the bedtime schedule for reading the book. Right before we hit the sac.

— Susan Maccarelli

PeckedToDeathByChickens.com, is Susan Maccarelli’s humor blog, though occasionally she’ll author a poignant post revealing her soft underbelly  (euphemism AND literal description).  Susan also helps other bloggers get featured on the websites they aspire to, via her blog resource site, BeyondYourBlog.com. Features on BlogHerBlunt Moms, Bonbon Break and In The Powder Room help feed her attention-seeking behavior.

The catsitting dilemma

Mary Farr and NoahMadam rang this morning to report that she needed my advice. Truthfully, she probably just wanted to vent. It seemed that her First Born had embarked on an Alaskan tour a few days ago and left Madam in charge of two cats.

This might not sound like a tricky matter. However, Madam called to report that three days into the assignment, she had already locked herself out of the First Born’s house. No spare key stashed under the hostas. No friendly neighbor offering coffee and a box of burglary tools. It was just Madam and two domestic shorthairs staring at one another through the glass door. She paced up and down the front walk, while the cats batted at unsuspecting squirrels from behind a secured window.

Did I mention that the domestic shorthairs don’t particularly like one another? Actually, that’s an understatement. These two would rather share a litter box with a pit bull than nap together in the same house.

“So, do they have enough food and water?” I queried once Madam had shared the lockout details.

“Yes, yes, but they need their medicine,” she wailed. “I have strict orders to swipe their ears with a calming potion once daily. And that’s not all. The two need to be separated. The diminutive female hangs out in the bedroom with the door closed. The plump fellow lives under the dining room table, where he spends most of his time trying to figure out how to bust into the bedroom.”

“Why?” I inquired. If memory serves, these felines met two years ago. After a year of tearful veterinary calls, three animal behaviorist consultations, calming kitty cooking classes, and a Bose radio tuned to soothing music, one would think they could find their way to a truce.

“And, another thing,” fumed Madam, “pheromones. I can’t find the pheromone plug-in that goes in the wall outlet – that thingy that’s supposed to make Miss kitty feel more comfortable around the obese rabble-rouser.”

Oh dear, cat counseling is not exactly my forte. Then, just as Madam was about to dispatch her next kitty diatribe, a deafening shriek pierced the airways.

“ADT,” she reported evenly. “The cats have set off the house alarm. With any luck it will get somebody’s attention.”

No question, the alarm eliminated any need to call 911. My guess was it could be heard at the Wisconsin border.

“Now what,” I squeaked, holding the phone away from my ear. “Should I ask the Landlord to come help?”

“Naw, countered Madam. “Somebody will show up, and I’ll just let them break in.” It beats calling the First Born in Alaska, and State Farm will be happy to pay for the door just to avoid meeting these two cats. How about if you and I forget to mention this little caper to the rest of the family?”

“Good idea” I agreed. “Glad to have been of service.”

— Noah Vail

Noah Vail and Mary Farr have collaborated on a book, Never Say Neigh: An Adventure in Fun, Funny and the Power of You. Noah, author, philosopher, humorist, gin rummy ace and all-around “good news sort of guy,” blogs hereNever Say Neigh won an honorable mention in the 2013 Paris Book Festival.

We may or may not remember

Judy ClarkeOnce upon a time — a velvety soft May night in 1974 — I met an Englishman named Peter at a party atop a mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway of Virginia. “How do you do?” he said politely while shaking hands with we three ladies who arrived together. He spent the rest of the evening with me. We danced, me barefoot, on the stone terrace that overlooked the twinkling valley below.

It was a fairy tale beginning.

At evening’s end he asked when he could see me again. We planned a hike for Memorial Day, two days hence. He arrived carrying an armload of yellow roses for me, a bagful of candy for my daughters who were in school that day. (Later I learned the roses grew carelessly over his carport and the candy came from a stash in his refrigerator, but never mind.)

“Oh! You’re not who I thought you were!” he said when I opened my door.

What a fine way to start a romance! Though we’d danced cheek-to-cheek all Saturday evening, he remembered the woman who’d come to the party with me! (That’s OK, I remembered him as a redhead and much taller.)

Seven years later — 1981 — I worked a magic spell and we married, not in May, but December.

The fairy tale continued. Three years ago this week, our family — Carolynn and husband  Bill, Leslie and husband Martin, and their offspring, Samantha and Miah, Peter and me — began a week’s vacation together on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It was the only week that year when all of us could be in the same place, same time.

Seven glorious, bright sunny family days at the beach, though that early in May the Atlantic was bloody freezing. But we made sand castles, fished, basked, shopped, played games, braved the wild north beach to look for ponies, took to the air and ate…a lot and often!

At the end of our stay I asked everyone to write down three favorite things, plus one least favorite, about the week.  “Family time” was tops, with “fish and fishing” and “pool playing, frisbee and flying kites” tied for second.  Parasailing was third, but hang gliding didn’t get a single vote, pro or con. Least liked was the three miles from our house to the shore.

The fisherman among us, Bill, liked catching his big striper. Carolynn liked watching him smile as he reeled it in. Samantha liked seeing it, but she didn’t like that she hadn’t caught a big one. Bill, though he did all the gory, gloppy gutting, didn’t like eating that or any fish.

Most of us were poetic about our likes and dislikes. Two of Leslie’s faves were napping on the beach and cuddling Sam, while Miah, then 16, liked “having tea with the ‘fam.’” But Peter, typically, answered tersely: “House. Meals. Weather.” He didn’t like that there wasn’t anyplace to walk.

My parasailing adventure wasn’t planned. What I really wanted to do was hang glide at Jockey Ridge, as did Martin, Sam and Miah. Leslie called to make arrangements, and I reminded her to make sure someone my age would even be allowed to do it, much less with a bad knee. She was assured that women 20 years older than my 72-year-old self went hang gliding, but my bad knee would make it a no-go.

Parasailing was an option. The pilot did the work, and the landing would be on wheels instead of on my legs“Sign me up!” I said.

Carolynn immediately objected. “At your age, Mom? No-o-o!

“If not now, when?” I asked.

Early the next morning all of us headed to the local airport. Carolynn was beside herself with anxiety, and Peter, who never loses sleep, tossed and turned all night. I was giddy.

Knee bend.

The flight was all I’d imagined, except long enough. Martin enjoyed watching me buckle in, probably because I’m a klutz and needed extra help to stuff my knee into the harness, and Carolynn liked seeing my smile when we landed. Hang gliding got no votes, pro or con, because the afternoon was extremely windy. Flyers had to be tethered to their instructors who ran down the dunes as if they had winged puppies on long leashes.

We left on Mother’s Day.  It was the first time in years both of my daughters and I were together, if only for a short time, on the second Sunday in May.

The next year, the Roanoke Times had a contest asking readers to submit a photo with a few words representing “freedom or escape.” I sent this photo from my flight, and won two tickets to Cirque du Soleil.

Judy Clarke

When Peter saw the newspaper feature he said, “Isn’t that the same guy?”

“What same guy?”

“The one you ‘flew’ with?”

“Yes, that’s Jim.”

“Is that you?

“Of course it’s me, you goof,” I laughed. “I won the tickets with that.”

“How did the picture get in the paper?”

“I emailed it to them as my contest entry.”

“Oh.”

Nearly 38 years after our first date — remember, he thought he was going hiking with a different woman — Peter recognized Jim in a picture, but he still wasn’t sure about me!

My husband’s dementia isn’t funny, but it’s better to laugh than to cry.

— Judy Clarke

Judy Clarke is a wife, mother of two daughters, grandmother to two grown grandchildren, reader, writer and blogger in southwest Virginia. Her two non-fiction books, Mother Tough Wrote the Book and That’s all she wrote, can be found on her friends’ and family’s shelves, and she’s working on a novel, But why? (That’s the title of the novel, not a question to self).

Lost: A Hawaiian family vacation

Hillary IbarraIt’s bad when the first day you arrive in balmy Hawaii you wish you were home — back in sizzling 107 degrees Phoenix, Ariz.

You might think it’s because we’re land-lubbin’ desert dwellers that we soured on beautiful Oahu so quickly, but it had more to do with real estate. Apparently, when civilization is built near water on an island, real estate is so valuable that there’s no room to waste on such petty things as parking spaces, restrooms and straight roads.

After driving the winding, perilous streets of Waikiki to our high-rise, overpriced accommodations, we parked in the cramped seven-space parking lot beneath our hotel before checking in. The parking arrangement being rather odd, we asked about it.

“I’m sorry,” said the desk clerk in an unapologetic tone of voice. “But I can’t allow you to park there. Those spaces are reserved. Can I put you on our waiting list?”

Then he told us about a nice sister property where we could park our car for 25 bucks a day. Our other option was to cruise the main drags of Waikiki for 20 minutes every hour hoping to parallel park for free. Since parallel-parking basics have evaporated from Phoenicians’ brains in the scorching heat, it was the parking garage for us.

After this comeuppance we walked into our hotel room at which point I started clicking my heels together and chanting desperately, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!”

We reserved a place with a kitchenette. To hoteliers this means broken-down rooms for families with at least three little monsters in tow. The kitchenettes are symbolic of our station in vacation life. We parents honestly intend to do some cost-effective home cookin,’ but the rusty 50-year-old range is for show.  The hotel staff knows all we really need is the mini fridge to cool our fast-food leftovers.

My husband’s friend asked how the food was in Hawaii. Ah, the food! One morning, frustrated in our effort to find a local place to eat and park the minivan, we pulled into a gas station to get our bearings. “Okay, everybody out!” I commanded. “This is where we’re eating breakfast.” It had parking spaces, after all.

And nothing says vacation like eating at that ubiquitous, All-American burger joint that lures children with cheap toys and parents with cheap tabs. If only we had something by which to remember all the exotic places in which we ate fast food for the sake of convenience and frugality! If we could but hold up a wilted bit of lettuce and say to our envious friends, “See how it’s shaped like a sea turtle? Got that near North Shore — beautiful view there!  This lovely French-fry sculpture of a lighthouse? Came from the one by Makapu’u Point. And just look at this hamburger bun artfully shaped like a pineapple! That was on the way to the Dole Plantation — we ate there twice!”

Due to the sodium content of those countless French fries, our 4-year-old became insatiably thirsty, crying for water as if the strange drizzle from the sky was not enough, and then needed to use the bathroom constantly. This posed a challenge in Waikiki. They have plenty of water, but bathrooms are elusive luxuries. You can’t even walk into a Starbucks — one of the most civilized establishments in the world — and expect to find a potty. No, you must carefully chart the few bathrooms in the city and then visit them obsessively for the hour or two in which you are in their radius. Fancy hotels and restaurants — meant for people who don’t need kitchenettes — are your best bet.

Despite all this mainlander angst, in the end this is what we’ll remember: the fabulous family reunion, beautiful beaches and a majestic ocean. Though we understood we were on an island, any glimpse of water as we drove around Oahu both charmed and astounded us.

“Look, I see the ocean!” I cried one afternoon for the fifth time, pointing giddily out my window.

At which exclamation my intelligent 11-year-old craned his neck and cried, completely without sarcasm, “Whoa! No way!”

The hotel was just a place to sleep. We adapted and walked to most of our destinations where, thank God, relatives were waiting to greet us. And we finally ate quality Hawaiian food at the rehearsal dinner and the wedding of my husband’s brother and sister-in-law. Free parking and restrooms were available.

— Hillary Ibarra

Hillary Ibarra has had several humor pieces published on Aiming Low and humorwriters.org. She has dreams of playing the banjo, living in Jane Austen’s childhood home and writing for more than spam artists and 50 loyal readers, but can’t seem to find them in the laundry. She is the mysterious blogger at No Pens, Pencils, Knives or Scissors. In her spare time she likes to threaten to sell her children to the zoo, and their little dog, too.

Re-entry

Jennifer ScharfI’m a terrible flier. A vodka-drinking, sobbing, trembling, pill-popping wreck. So when I decided to sign up for a writing conference in Ohio, I didn’t think about how I would get there from Boston. In my mind, Ohio was the next state over and I was going to ride my bicycle. Or wave my daughter’s fairy wand and magically appear. After researching trains, planes and automobiles, I decided to drive.

Things didn’t get off to a good start. I reserved a rental car, but they wouldn’t let me take it because of a silly thing like an expired license. Apparently I have been tooling around suburbia for a year and a half without a valid license. How did I let that happen? I don’t know; I just did. I have been home for six years with a kid, which translates to not knowing how to function in the real world anymore. I panic using a pedestrian crosswalk sign; how can I be trusted to renew a driver’s license?

After racing down to the DMV (driving illegally) and nearly failing the eye exam, I’m back in business. I drop the dog off at the pooch hotel, drop the kid off at Grandma’s and start the first leg of my journey. The plan was to stop in New York City, where my husband was staying for a work meeting, and crash in his free room.

I arrive at 1 a.m. to find him eating million-dollar snacks from the minibar while watching late-night TV on one of two giant decadent beds layered with 1,200-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets. So this is what he does on business trips while I’m home picking up dog shit and cooking macaroni and cheese. Annoyed and exhausted, I eye the empty bed … and he gives me the sex look. Oh for the love of God, I think. But then, if we don’t have sex in a fancy childless hotel room in the Big Apple, our marriage is dead. And no one wants a dead marriage.

Three hours later, I take some cash out of his wallet while he’s sleeping and sneak out the door. Feeling a bit hooker-ish, I set off into the morning light. As I nervously navigate city streets, my mind conjures up tragedy. What if my daughter falls out a window? What if she gets disoriented in her sleep and suffocates under the 5,000 pillows that I barricaded around the bed? What about the dog? Is she eating? Is she catching some sort of kennel disease? This is horrible. Why I am doing to my family? Sh**. Sh**. Sh**. This was so selfish of me. Trucks whip by on the freeway, and I consider that I could die on the road, leaving my daughter motherless. I should have taken a plane like a normal f***ing person.

But then I hit the open Pennsylvania highways (ah, suburbia!), and the layers fall off one by one. The husband, the kid, the house, the dog. Poof! They are gone and I am free. I am lighter, like a snake that just molted. It scares the hell out of me how easy it is to leave it all behind.

I feel horribly guilty for a split second, and then stop to get a Diet Coke. Screw it, I get two. I wouldn’t be allowed to do this with my family in the car. They would get on me about how poisonous it is. I drive and I drink can after can of Diet Coke, stopping only to discover that rest stops are now called “text stops.” This makes me feel human again.

I get to the workshop and laugh and cry and cry and laugh for two days straight with fearless women there for the same reason: To be heard. And as I eat cake and buttered rolls and drink red wine and soda, I start to stand taller. I feel like I am home. Or in another home that I rarely visit.

As we prepared to go our separate ways, my new friends joked about re-entry. But I don’t work, so I just smile vaguely.

After 14 hours of driving like a trucker, I hit the Mass Pike. And I have an uncontrollable urge to turn around.

At home, everything looks different. The daffodils bloomed, my daughter’s foot grew, the yard is littered with toys, and the sink is piled with dishes. This makes me uncomfortable. I’m not desperately needed the way I thought that I was. Life goes on, with or without me. I feel a wave of loss hit me as I stand over the kitchen sink.

I turn on the faucet and get back to work.

— Jennifer Scharf

Jennifer Scharf is a Boston-based writer and producer. Her work has been featured in McSweeney’s, Mamalode, Scary Mommy and Writer’s Digest. You can follow her on Twitter @momcoms. Check out her blog at www.momcoms.com.

Isn’t it time for your nap?

Tracy BucknerI recently wrote about vacationing with your kids and how it’s not a vacation unless you leave them home, so my husband and I decided to try vacationing without them. We left everyone to fight over the last loaf of bread and gallon of milk in Shop-Rite before another impending storm.

There’s nothing like Jamaica in February. Sun and rum drinks. We booked an all-adult resort which meant no teenagers texting in the hot tub, and no 2-year-olds in the pool in their swimmy diapers which promise to “keep it all in.” Trust me, “keeping it all in” is a myth.

After boarding a 6 a.m. flight and not arriving at the resort until that evening thanks to a brewing storm, I was ready for a glass of wine, a fabulous dinner and a beautiful sunset. My husband lovingly looked at me, took my hand and said, “Do you want to play ping-pong?”

The next morning: “Do you want to paddle board, go snorkeling, we could scuba dive, hit the gym, ride a wave runner, why don’t we take a kayak out?” Me to him: “Why don’t you take a nap?”

We set ourselves up under an umbrella and as I longingly looked at my yet unopened book, we walked to the activity hut. Wait, aren’t activity huts for kids? All these years I was under the misconception that my kids needed us for a successful vacation when, in reality, it was my husband who needed them even more.

While other couples were being served drinks as they relaxed beach-side, I was being outfitted with flippers and a face mask. We spent the first morning snorkeling. That afternoon — kayaking. That night — ping pong, again.

Marriage is all about compromise, I told myself. My time would come. Perhaps there was a giant shovel I could find so he could dig a hole. Or I could use it to hit him over the head. Or perhaps I could fly my son down.

The next morning I left my book in our room. We went paddle boarding. Then, while my husband went wind surfing, it was my chance to sit on the beach and summon that waiter. I didn’t have my book, but I didn’t have my husband, either. My vacation had begun.

But just as I was relaxing on the beach I realized I couldn’t spot him on the water. It was like having a lost child. Where is he? I stood up, nervous, heart racing. I paced the beach scanning the horizon ready to call the National Guard or whatever they have in Jamaica for tourists gone wild. Then he appeared, happily riding a wave in. I felt like that mom who loses their child and, when reunited, wants to hug them and throttle them at the same time. WHERE IS THAT WAITER? WHERE IS THAT SHOVEL?

That afternoon was spent on a wave runner. I gave my book to the maid. “Isn’t this great?” he screamed to me over the roar off the engine. My hair whipping across my face. Surgery imminent for my neck. I gave him a thumbs up. Isn’t marriage grand?

I am never traveling without my kids again.

Then, a miracle. We met a couple from Manitoba, Canada. She also had that dazed look on her face like she was looking for a playmate for her husband. It was a match made in rum heaven. She liked to read and apply suntan lotion. He liked beach volleyball and anything except sitting on a beach. Soon it was like putting our kids on the bus. “Play nice with each other,” we said as we waved goodbye to them every morning.

Finally, we could vacation as we wanted, and our Ladies Group had grown. Apparently I wasn’t the only one looking to do damage with a shovel. I borrowed a book since the maid was enjoying mine.

Reunited with my husband in the late afternoons, I was happy and he was tired. At night there were sunset sailboat cruises, a disco and a piano bar where everyone was expected to sing, and, believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Born in the USA” sung with a Jamaican accent. With our new friends all around us, it was a fun and memorable adults-only vacation. Happiness can be found after your kids are grown up and gone!

On our last night we enjoyed a wonderful romantic dinner while sipping wine and watching the stunning sunset. My husband lovingly looked at me, took my hand and said, “Wanna go down the water slide?”

— Tracy Buckner

Tracy Buckner contributes periodically to the Observer Tribune Newspaper of Chester, N.J., and blogs for the New Jersey Hills Newspaper, serving Madison, Chatham and Chester, N.J. She enjoys writing about the slow decline and vows to go down kicking and screaming.

Reflections of Erma