It was an offhand comment, really. If my head had been turned, I probably wouldn’t have heard it, but it wasn’t, so I did. During a break in a long business meeting, a guy sitting across the table from me happened to let slip that he keeps a complete set of backup underwear — boxers, socks and undershirt — in his office.
I looked at the guy, and he looked back at me. It was like the scene in Casablanca when the Nazis start singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” and Victor Laszlo asks the band to play ”La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. he bandleader looks to Humphrey Bogart, playing Rick Blaine, who gives him the nod. Beneath the cynical exterior, we know whose side Rick is on.
Nations at peace traditionally prepare for the inevitability of war by stockpiling assets of critical importance, or supporting their production. The United States, for example, maintains an emergency fuel store of oil, known as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. We also subsidize mohair, so our boys in uniform will never be embarrassed as they climb out of a muddy trench half a world away to find that their outfit is tragically unfashionable.
Either that, or face a fast-talking, slow-walking, good-looking Mohair Sam, as Charlie Rich sang about — unarmed.
Canada, you may be surprised to learn, maintains a strategic reserve of maple syrup, which reached a high-syrup mark of 60 million pounds in 2004. No sneak attack by Al Qaeda is ever going to leave Canadians’ waffles and pancakes dry — no sirree bob!
But underwear reserves have historically slipped beneath the fabric of American life, to put it both literally and figuratively. At least one mother I know — mine — used to carry an extra set on long airplane flights to Hawaii. You never know when you’re going to overshoot Oahu and end up on a South Pacific island where underwear consists of palm leaves, tastefully arranged.
My underwear reserve, and that of my newfound brother under the skin across the table, is maintained for similarly practical reasons. We both work out in the morning, and when you pack your bag the night before it is sometimes easy to forget a pair of socks, an undershirt or underpants while you’re contemplating how cute your wife looks in her Chilly Penguin Footed Pajamas. When you do, you have to walk around the office showing bare ankles, for example, while you wait for the nearest department store to open at 10 a.m.
“What’s with the no socks?” your boss asks. “That’s the look the well-dressed gentleman will be wearing this spring,” you say blithely as you walk down the hall while making mental calculations of the amount you’ll save on taxes next year when your salary goes down!
No, in these perilous economic times, it behooves every American breadwinner to keep an extra set of underwear on hand at the office. Even if you don’t work out in the morning, what if the liquid natural gas tanker outside your window explodes, leaving you stranded downtown at the same time that it destroys all available underwear reserves in the surrounding metropolitan statistical area? Then where would you be?
I think you know the answer to that question.
And in answer to your other question — no, you can’t borrow my underwear.
— Con Chapman
Con Chapman is a Boston-area writer whose works include The Year of the Gerbil, a history of the 1978 Yankees-Red Sox pennant race, 10 published plays and two novels, Making Partner and CannaCorn (Joshua Tree Publishing). His articles and humor have appeared in magazines and newspapers including The Atlantic Monthly, The Boston Globe and The Christian Science Monitor.
“This trip is one that will be filled with hardship and challenges, but all of those will be equaled by the beauty, joy, laughter and love which will inevitably come to them,” trip leader Toby Hills ’15 wrote to parents this spring. “Your child is going to come away from this experience feeling absolutely blessed.”
Hills, now on his third service-learning trip to Zambia, encouraged parents to write letters that he will hand-deliver to the students. Here’s mine:
I wasn’t wild about your idea to spend six weeks in Zambia this summer — even though I couldn’t place the country on a map.
I now know this sparsely populated, impoverished land about the size of Texas is rich in culture and natural beauty. It’s the home of one spectacular waterfall that most of us will only marvel at in photos. And it enjoys a reputation as one of the safest countries in Africa.
These are all reassuring facts for an anxious mother to embrace as her 18-year-old makes an 8,000-mile journey around the world to live in a wondrous, new culture.
Unlike other countries in the region, Zambia has avoided an Ebola outbreak, but it lives with an HIV/AIDS epidemic. The statistics are staggering. A reported one in seven adults lives with HIV, with AIDS orphans making up half of all orphans in the country. In the villages, you’ll see children whose growth and brain development have been stunted by malnutrition. Families mourn the death of loved ones all too often.
This enormous health crisis in the midst of overwhelming poverty will open up your eyes to a world few Americans will ever experience. In the words of activist actor Martin Sheen, “Remember this above all: One heart with courage is a majority.”
I admire your courage.
At your age, I boarded an airplane for the first time in my life — not to travel to a developing nation to teach youth but to visit my grandmother in Florida and enjoy a week of beach living. Your summer will not be a walk on the beach as you sacrifice so much of what we take for granted. Daily showers. Reliable electricity. Ridiculously expensive coffee. Tweeting. “I need a break from the First World,” you said.
I admire your selflessness.
You are unlike many of your peers, who are chasing after a college degree like a carousel’s brass ring. You want more in life than just a piece of parchment and the economic security it promises. You want a life with meaning.
I admire your perspective.
This spring, I introduced you to my favorite author, Anne Lamott, who writes simply and eloquently about what it means to live a life that matters. Remember her words from a commencement address at Berkeley a decade ago? She told graduates, “Every single spiritual tradition says the same three things:
1) Live in the now, as often as you can, a breath here, a moment there.
2) You reap exactly what you sow.
3) You must take care of the poor, or you are so doomed that we can’t help you.”
I admire your compassion.
You are ready to change the world, but this trip will change you. After traveling 14 hours from the capital city of Lusaka to a remote village to teach children, you will struggle to return to the life you left.
“Once you go overseas and experience life in a different way, you are changed. And you can’t really come back to the life you had. You look at everything differently. Even little things like why are there 64,000 brands of toothpaste or peanut butter and then there are places where food doesn’t get to the people who need it. It just makes no sense and is overwhelming,” says my friend Ann Hudock, senior vice president of international programs for Plan International USA, who recently returned from living and working in Zambia.
Encouraged and supported by the Marianists at the University of Dayton, Ann boarded a plane for Sierra Leone after graduation. Her journey to Africa 25 years ago set her on a career path in international development that led to living in Hanoi and Lusaka.
“The rural areas in Zambia with grinding poverty and dispersed population make it so hard to change things,” Ann observes. “Yet there are amazing people doing just that. …But in big ways, experiences like this can make you rethink what you want to do in life. And, that’s wonderful but daunting.”
In life, we’re only promised the moment. Use this moment to immerse yourself in Zambia. Make new friends. Be open. Ask questions. Reflect. Read. Pray.
Above all, be yourself. You are a gift to the world.
With much love and prayers,
— Teri Rizvi
Teri Rizvi is the founder of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and executive director of strategic communications at the University of Dayton.
Not with content; this is not writer’s block. I’ve got content, believe me. Everywhere I look life is screaming to be heard, stories aching to be told. Laughed at. Exposed. Teased, tormented, loved, shared. Told.
There are stories everywhere; it’s just hard to be funny when Texas is drowning. Hard to push gun safety when we are literally shooting ourselves to death every single day and Sandy Hook is turning into a “where? oh, there” afterthought for those outside our very fragile yet beautiful bubble.
Black folks are being trivialized and beaten and killed, and cops are being shot or ignored of their good work or acquitted of their bad and there’s no accountability and how can I just be funny when Kid3 is going to college and I’m left with a Boy who grunts his disgust and that’s if-and-only-if I somehow entice him into my presence. But he’s 15 now and this is all totally normal — I know that, it’s not my first teenage circus — and what am I complaining about when he’s a white boy protected by his skin from a life of injustice he can only experience on the news and lives here, in quiet, safe, secure Newtown with good schools and safe streets and cops are our friends and saviors when they’re not selling drugs from the privacy of their cubicle?
Sigh. That’s the inside of my brain. Today.
So, I don’t know whether to post or not to post. To submit my writing elsewhere and if so, how, when, to whom? And after how many rejections is it time to say Uncle? Do people even say uncle anymore?
So on my Facebook writer’s page, I vague-booked my lament with an oh-so-brief, woe-is-me pity post. Nothing like this which mirrors a diary-under-a-pillow-with-heart-shaped-lock-and-key circa middle school mayhem, but I can’t stop myself.
It was quick: just a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am quickie (see below). I posted without fear of being discovered because Facebook has an algorithm so “professional pages or writer pages or business pages” get seen by few to no one, unless I pay to “boost” it. Which I don’t because well, the vast majority of “likes” recruited will most likely be at family reunion correcting my spelling and ridiculing my ungodly obsession with restricting their God-given right to bear arms.
So I put my vaguebook pity party of one on the Kathryn Mayer facebook page: Why bother? Any of it? The funny? The family? The activism? Why keep laughing/shouting/crying in an empty room? I hit post, then signed off. Here’s how it went:
So imagine my surprise when I found out the room is not so empty after all. Notice the reach of 737 people. Those are real people. Facebook says so. And you can’t see the comments here, but they’re ingrained in my heart and soul. For real. (And I’m only related to one of them. Maybe two.)
The comments, support, laughs, kudos were more than my heart could hold — all so very kind, so very positive, reminding me, like the whos in Whoville, “we’re here, we’re here!” Just keep writing, making us laugh, blush, cry and think.
Nothing vague about that.
I can’t even begin to tell you, oh invisible readers, friends, neighbors, strangers and writing mentors, how much this means to me, because there’s hundreds of me. Thousands upon thousands of writers writing and wondering if we do indeed matter.
Thanks for letting this one know she does.
Kate Mayer is a writer in limbo, trying to find that delicate spot between writing what she loves and paying the bills. An irreverent storyteller with a bad mouth and big heart, she was selected to read at the 2012 NYC Listen To Your Mother Show. Today Kate is a forever ambassador for her home of Newtown, Conn., and dedicated advocate for gun violence prevention. She attended EBWW 2014 in a desperate search for her funny, and yet discovered so much more.
Mine protrudes and is soft like an underinflated beach ball or, if you like, a misadventure into a dense, tangled forest. It is the definition of what health exercise scientists say a stomach should not be. They get published articles about this. Read about it if you want to get bored and feel bad about your stomach.
My stomach bulges. When I look down while standing up, I can’t see my toes because my belly is in the way. When I touch it, it feels like a bulging pillow that if you pricked with a pin would pop and ooze candy much like an off-white, undecorated piñata. My stomach feels as if it would be more comfortable to sleep on than a thin and beaten up one. Anybody would sleep soundly for eight hours resting their head on my belly.
I wish I had a muscular stomach. We can wish for many things in life but many we will never attain. Take being a billionaire. Many of us would like to be billionaire, but almost none of us will be, which is depressing.
About six months ago I was able to get my stomach to shrink a little bit. But even though I lost lots of weight, the stomach remained plump. My legs and thighs shrunk more noticeably.
“It’s all those years of eating fast food that got your stomach so big,” said my nutritionist, who has since fired me as a client because, well, I’m not sure why. My gut tells me in our meetings I got too argumentative, psychological and off topic, and he tired of that. “It will take a long time to undo all the building up of your stomach.”
This was not inspiring.
Shrinking my belly would require patience and time. I’m running out of both of those. We all are. Don’t you watch the evening cable TV talk shows? There you can hear all about this.
The thing about a stomach is when it’s thin, on a woman, it’s eye-candy especially on a beach in a bathing suit. Thin stomachs, especially tan ones, are jewels, almost as delicious as boardwalk caramel corn.
This summer my plan is to shrink my stomach, make it look like I’m a body builder. My plan will fall apart this afternoon when I take a nap after going to McDonalds for a Big Mac and chocolate shake.
My stomach will get bigger. My life will get shorter. My psyche will be damaged. My ego will take a hit.
And I will never see my toes again.
— Charles Hartley
Charles Hartley is a freelance writer who has had more than 1,000 articles published in a wide range of media outlets focused on humor, sports, business, technology and consumers. He has earned master’s degrees in journalism and business administration and a bachelor’s degree in English and communications.
Author and humor columnist Burton W. Cole’s second novel, Bash and the Chicken Coop Caper (2014, B&H Kids), won the prestigious 2015 Selah Award as Best Novel for Middle Grades.
And Cole’s third “faith, fun and farm pranks” novel, Bash and the Chocolate Milk Cows, released May 1 from B&H Kids / LifeWay Christian Resources.
“It’s been a good month,” said Cole, a two-time attendee of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. “Bash, Beamer, Lauren and the rest of the gang are doing cartwheels all through the chicken coop. Except Beamer. He can’t do cartwheels. He’s doing somersaults. It’s quite a joyous mess.”
The Bash series of humor/adventure tales about kids romping on a northeast Ohio farm began with Bash and the Pirate Pig (2013), which also was a top three finalist for the Selah Award and a top 10 finalist for Christian Retailing’s Best Award for Children’s Books.
“I love sharing the silliness and pure joy of the goofy escapades I remember my siblings and cousins pulling growing up in the country, and how the love and discovery of God was such a natural part of all those awesome adventures,” Cole said.
The Selah Awards, which are presented at the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference in Ridgecrest, N.C., this year this year included hundreds of titles entered from 29 publishing houses in 14 genres.
Cole is assistant metro editor at the Tribune Chronicle in Warren, Ohio. His award-winning humor column, “Burt’s Eye View,” has been appearing weekly in the Star Beacon, Ashtabula, Ohio, for 22 years and in the Tribune Chronicle for 19 years.
The Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist grew up on a farm in northeast Ohio and attended a small-town church with a slew of cousins and buddies. That same boyhood inspires his colorful and comical novels today.
In Bash and the Chicken Coop Caper, while Mom offers “anything” to get Bash and cousin Beamer out of the house, she really isn’t expecting them to use her good sheets to sail-snowboard off the top of the chicken coop, to put a pig in ice skates or harness the hog as the driving force of a pig-powered ambulance sled, or to use undershorts and bicycle inner tubes to build a snowball slingshot. Bash uses the most misadventurous methods ever imagined by a couple of cooped-up kids to try to harvest the Fruit of the Spirit. Beamer’s more concerned about the disappearing eggs and the pink, purple and orange paisley sleeping bag on the move, and the footprints in the snow.
Bash and the Chocolate Milk Cows features chickens dripping in strawberry-rhubarb pie run amok in a fire station, a goat painted in an explosion of circus colors, and the cows giving chocolate milk on April Fool’s Day. Just the typical weirdness Beamer encounters when visiting cousin Bash on the farm. Meanwhile, somebody’s holding up stores and feed mills. Beamer wants to figure out baptism, but instead faces the chocolate-loving robber with only his crazy cousin, pesky neighbor Mary Jane, and Morton, the goat of many colors, as his Gideon’s Army.
But the one I love to hear repeated is Poppie, which is what I am called by my 2-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.
My wife, Sue, who is called nothing but good things, especially by me, because without her I would be a four-letter word (“dead”), is known to Chloe as Nini.
I’m glad Sue and I have such wonderful grandparent names because we could have been called a lot worse.
I found this out recently when I saw that two fine family-oriented groups, BabyCenter (which provides advice on pregnancy and parenting) and the American Grandparents Association (which is what it sounds like), have each come out with a list of names that grandmothers and grandfathers are called these days, whether they like it or not.
At the top — or, if you prefer, the bottom — of the grandfather list is PeePaw. No offense to any guy whose grandchild calls him by that name, but I can’t imagine Chloe saying to me, “PeePaw, I have to go pee-pee.”
Then again, Poppie is perilously close to that post-Pampers potty predicament (and besides, it sort of rhymes), so maybe PeePaw isn’t so bad after all.
Then there’s Chief, which is considered a trendy name for grandfathers but sounds more like what Jimmy Olsen called Perry White in the 1950s “Superman” TV series. It conjures the following exchange:
Chloe: “Hey, Chief, pass me the coloring book.”
Me: “Here you go, Honey. And don’t call me Chief!”
A great grandfather name (though not a great-grandfather name) is the unlisted and presumably unique moniker bestowed on David Wright, not the New York Mets slugger but a professional window cleaner who recently cleaned the windows at our house: Granddude. For a goateed guy who used to be both a lawyer and a monk, it fits.
My buddy Tim Lovelette, who has four granddaughters, has two grandfather names, both on the AGA list: Big Daddy and Grumpy.
“Both are pretty accurate,” Tim once told me.
His wife, Jane, also is known by two names on the AGA list: Go-Go (she’s a marathon runner) and Grammy (I didn’t know she could sing, but I eagerly await her first album).
If Jane becomes famous, she’ll join other celebrities on the AGA list, including Donald Trump, who is known to his grandchildren — with great affection, I am sure — as Mr. Trump.
I can just imagine one of his grandkids sitting on his knee, running tiny fingers through his comb-over and asking, “Mr. Trump, will I be a hair to your fortune?”
On the grandmother side is Martha Stewart, who is called, simply, Martha.
I’m sure she would recommend using fine china to serve Count Chocula to your perfect little grandchild. And, in a pinch, she’d probably pass along this creative tip: “If you run out of Huggies, a doily will do.”
There are no celebrities on the BabyCenter list, but there are some pretty creative grandparent names.
For grandmothers: Gramma-Bamma (“Gramma-Bamma, would you read me ‘Green Eggs and Hamma’ ”?), Safta (“Do I Safta go to bed so early?”) and Yumma (“Yumma, Yumma, your cookies hit the spot in my tumma!”).
For grandfathers: Bumpy (“Get in your carseat, it’s gonna be a Bumpy ride”), Coach (at bedtime: “Put me in, Coach”) and Koko (“I’m cuckoo for Koko!”).
If I can help it, Chloe will never see these lists. But she’d no doubt agree that some grandparent names are better than others.
Take it from Nini and Poppie.
— Jerry Zezima
Jerry Zezima, who served on the faculty at the 2010 EBWW, writes a humor column for the Stamford Advocate that is nationally syndicated through the McClatchy-Tribune News Service and regularly appears in the Huffington Post. He’s written two books, Leave it to Boomer and The Empty Nest Chronicles. He has won five humor-writing awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and was named EBWW’s Humor Writer of the Month twice. He is currently president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
We’ve discussed possible plans. I suggested a weekend spent organizing our house. While I believe that one will be vetoed as simply too un-anniversary-like, I’m cool with us not doing it big or giving each other expensive gifts.
I have told him as much, and I believe he would like it notarized.
I don’t blame him. In our dating years, I would have told him this and then expected him to pass my test of getting me a gift anyway. In many different ways, I held him up to a standard of romantic gestures and drama that was unrealistic.
My romantic expectations were shaped by movies and soap operas. As a teen, I had many a daydream where I cast myself in “Sixteen Candles” and enjoyed the romantic gestures (Porsche! cake! panties!) of Jake Ryan. He had to compete with Lloyd Dobler and his boom box. On the small screen, I watched soap operas and pined after a character who was ultimately played by two different actors and killed off at least that many times.
With long-distance dating, my then-boyfriend and I had the opportunity for reunions after separations and weekends where we could essentially shut out the typical day to day. We had our fair share of romantic gestures.
Then we got married.
All of a sudden, we were living not only in the same state but in the same space, and a very small one at that. He realized that I was far messier than I had made myself out to be, and I realized that he wasn’t kidding when he said he was messy. We squabbled and stewed. As our bathroom was arguably the largest and most private space in our apartment, we both found retreat in taking baths.
Ten years later, we have a good marriage. I attribute some of that to us each having our own bathrooms. Beyond that, though, I have learned to appreciate the many small ways that my husband has shown me his love. To name a few:
He puts my toothbrush head in the sanitizer for me.
He doesn’t say anything when I stand at the fridge squirting whipped cream into my mouth (despite my resolution to cut out dairy and sweets).
He makes me bacon.
He set up an extra-large monitor so that I would stop squinting and leaning forward when working on the computer.
I am annoyed by some of the small things he does (e.g., leaving his socks on the floor or burrowed at the foot of the bed), but I’ll soldier on picking up his socks because the small things he does to show me his love outweigh them. I know that there are small things I do that annoy him, too (e.g., insisting on using a steak knife for all cutting and chopping in the kitchen).
While my teenage heart belonged to Jake and Lloyd, my more mature and fuller heart belongs to my husband and our life built on a million small things.
— Christina Liparini
Christina Liparini is a therapist, educator and mother. For 15 years she has treated children and adults coping with anxiety, depression, sexual assault, other traumas, grief, loss, eating issues, career concerns and more. She also has used her counseling background to support the needs of mothers and mothers-to-be.
About a month ago, with husband and kids in tow, I was returning to frigid New Jersey from balmy Palm Beach, Fla. I was already in a funk when a TSA agent pulled me out of an airport security line for “extra screening.”
The agent pointed at me and said, “Palms up.” With my usual smooth eloquence I said, “Huh,” so the TSA agent repeated, “Palms up,” at which point I complied. She swabbed my hands with some device and told me I needed to wait for the results before proceeding. It was neither humiliating nor terrifying but it was, and here’s the understatement of the decade, preposterous.
Security is a serious business. I understand that sometimes it can be inconvenient, intrusive and seemingly arbitrary and really I’m down for all that. In light of the fact that TSA doesn’t know me, I thought I should let them know that when it comes to extra screening they are not only barking up the wrong tree when it comes to me, they are not even in the right forest.
Here are the top five reasons why TSA need never again swab my hands for traces of explosives:
5. As a child, I cried and begged for a chemistry set because I thought it looked like such fun, but when I got one as a gift, I cried all over again because that chemistry set was, without exception, the most disappointing gift I’d ever gotten. It was not even a little fun. You see chemistry has never been my ish, leading inexorably to the conclusion that my fate as a person incapable of making a bomb was sealed long ago.
4. I am a 50-year-old woman whose perpetual state of being is drop-dead exhaustion. Removing my shoes in a security line while standing and at the same time getting my coat off, my electronics out of their cases and onto the conveyer belt and my pockets emptied with people breathing down my neck is the stuff of my nightmares. By the time I’ve done all that, I’m all in. Doing all of the above whilst simultaneously masterminding criminal activity — for goodness sake, I can’t even remember where I packed the toothpaste.
3. I can’t even maintain the simplest lie, so if I was up to no good, would I be waltzing through security without breaking a sweat? When the Israeli security agents for El Al Airlines ask me if I packed my own suitcases, even though I did, I get so nervous I feel like I’m going to vomit.
2. I travel with my children, the very children whom I’ve spent the last 22 years cherishing and nurturing. I take care of every last detail of their lives. From years of sleepless nights, loose braces, badly broken out skin to hellish school projects, I have poured body and soul into these children. I have given them my life’s blood and I can assure the TSA I am most certainly not building explosives and stewarding my children onto an airplane with those explosives. When I decide to take these kids out, they will know it. There will be no ambiguity, and there will be no trace of explosives on my fingers because I will be ripping their hearts out, as any self-respecting Jewish mother would do, not blowing them up on an airplane. Common sense, people, common sense!!!
1. To be perfectly honest, loud noises followed by puffs of smoke terrify me.
TSA, you have my admiration, respect and thanks but you can just go ahead and cross me off the list of people you need to worry about because, trust me, you’ve got bigger fish to fry.
I am not now, nor will I ever be #publicenemynumberoneorevennumbertwo.
— Helene Hirsch Wingens
Helene Hirsch Wingens is a mother of three boys, wife, daughter, sometimes writer and retired lawyer. With 50 in the rear-view mirror, she’s trying to figure out if there’s a second act — and what it is. Her writing can be found online at themid.com, The Forward and Betterafter50.com.