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

Erma Bombeck Wrighters' Workshop Banner

Nutty but nice

I work for peanuts. This may explain why I recently did two very important things:

(a) I bought a Powerball ticket.

(b) I made my own peanut butter.

My love of money, which I don’t have much of because I had to take a vow of poverty when I went into journalism, is exceeded only by my love of peanut butter, which doesn’t cost much and tastes a lot better, especially if you are the kind of person who puts his money where his mouth is.

I got the idea to make my own peanut butter when I read an online article about various uses for the stuff, which are not, apparently, limited to eating.

For instance, it can be used as shaving cream. I had never thought of this, mainly because I would rather eat peanut butter and save my shaving cream for pies, just like the Three Stooges did when they started pie fights.

Hungry for knowledge, I tried it. I got a knife and spread the peanut butter on my face, then I grabbed my trusty razor and, cheek by jowl, carefully smoothed out the situation. It worked like a charm. I didn’t have razor stubble. And I didn’t cut myself, though I’m sure the peanut butter would have stanched the blood.

Best of all, I smelled good, which is another use for peanut butter. According to the article, it is an odor eliminator. In addition, it’s a squeak eliminator that can be used in place of WD-40 on hinges and drawers. It’s also a squeak eliminator because it can be used as mouse trap bait.

Other peanut butter uses: windshield cleaner (it removes bug carcasses, which would make creamy peanut butter chunky); hair moisturizer (if you leave it in, I guess it would get rid of the gray, too); and leather cleaner (too kinky to think about).

But since the best use for peanut butter is eating, I decided to make my own.

Following a recipe I also got online, I bought a bag of raw peanuts and a bottle of peanut oil, which are the main ingredients, along with kosher salt, a box of which was already in a kitchen cabinet.

According to the instructions, I needed a food processor, a baking sheet, a spatula and a container with a lid.

My wife, Sue, also a peanut butter fan (she likes chunky, while I prefer creamy), set up the food processor and said, “Good luck. And don’t forget to clean everything up when you’re done.”

The most labor-intensive part of the process was shelling two cups of peanuts, some of which I ate, which is why it took about half an hour.

Then I spread them on the baking sheet, set the oven at 350 degrees and put them in for 10 minutes, after which I dumped them into the food processor and checked out the instructions, which said, “If you toasted your nuts, do this while they are still warm. Pulse a few times until chopped.”

It hurt just reading this.

Next, I ran the food processor for one minute, stopped and scraped the sides and the bottom of the bowl, and repeated the process twice. Then I put in half a teaspoon of kosher salt and two tablespoons of peanut oil and ran the processor for two more minutes.

I carefully lifted the lid, hoping my peanut butter wouldn’t be like Spackle. To my amazement, it had a perfectly creamy consistency. I dipped in a spoon, which I like to use when I eat the store-bought stuff straight from the jar, and lifted it to my mouth.

My taste buds did backflips. I didn’t because I figured I would break something, like the food processor or my leg, but I can honestly say it was the best peanut butter I have ever tasted.

“Wow!” Sue exclaimed when I gave her some. “This is really good.”

Even Maggie the dog loved it, though she had a tough time getting it off the roof of her mouth.

I spooned the peanut butter into a container and put it in the refrigerator, proud that it is too good to use as a windshield cleaner or a hair moisturizer. I won’t even shave with it.

I’ll just be happy that I have won the culinary equivalent of Powerball and put my peanut butter where my mouth is.

— 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 Tribune News Service and regularly appears in the Huffington Post. He’s written three books, Grandfather Knows BestLeave it to Boomer and The Empty Nest Chronicles. He has won six humor-writing awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and was named EBWW’s Humor Writer of the Month twice. He is the past president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Small minds talk about people living in tiny houses

There are several programs on cable dedicated to the “tiny house” movement. Indicative of the creative forces involved with these shows, all feature the word “tiny” in their titles:

• Tiny House, Tiny Nation
• Tiny House Builders
• Tiny House, Big Living
• Tiny Hands, Tiny House
• It’s Not “Tiny,” Doctor, It’s “Ticonderoga, New York”

Whenever my wife forces encourages me to watch one of these programs, we always marvel at the ingenuity involved with the design and construction of these shrunken abodes. A bed folds into the wall and has artwork buckled to its underside; a hibachi is retro-fitted for propane and serves as the stove; the vegetable crisper in the refrigerator doubles as a sock drawer.

Fad aside, “Tiny” isn’t even the smallest acknowledged house size. According to one industry website, “right-sized” homes are broken down into these categories, from smallest to largest: Micro, Compact, Miniature, Tiny, Little, Small, Efficiency, Reduced and Downsized. These distinctions undoubtedly lead to conversations like this: “Oh, what a darling ‘Tiny’ house you have! Of course, we gave ours up years ago in order to reduce our carbon footprint down to pinky-toe level, when we moved into our ‘Micro’ home. It has everything you could possibly need — the only accommodations we’ve had to make are to take all our meals at Burger King, and Nash showers at his office so the triplets can get ready for school in the morning.”

During the big reveal, the homeowners see their completed domicile for the first time — usually with an unexpected flourish like a skylight, or a red wagon from childhood fashioned into a coffee table, or when they now learn for space considerations the kitchen sink and bassinet have been placed outside. My wife watches rapturously from her vantage point on our couch (a couch which could not possibly fit into any of these tiny houses and would be replaced by a reclaimed park bench — or perhaps, as an example of multi-function ingenuity, by a pair of toilets set side-by-side facing the media center). She’ll turn toward me (which would be tough from her perch on the toilet, so scotch that idea) and express her desire to design, build and move into a tiny house of our very own. While I hate to harsh her buzz, it becomes my responsibility to point out we already live in a “tiny” house, since our dining room table also serves as a file cabinet, bookshelf, cat bed and ironing board.

If she’s looking for a small space within which to carry out the functions of daily living, I remind her we already thrive in one, known as our bedroom. We eat, sleep and watch TV within its four walls and can even enjoy the outdoors from an adjoining deck. Out of discretion I don’t include “… and occasionally use it as a bathroom” so as not to remind her of those times when, settling in for the evening, she starts laughing so uncontrollably while watching random Facebook videos on her phone that she pees right through to the mattress.

Why hasn’t someone developed a series about long-time married couples living in reasonably-sized housing and yet every single thing belonging to the husband is shoved to the back of the guest room closet? They could call it I Live Here Too, You Know. I’d watch that show. As long as a certain somebody stretched out next to me on the bed promises not to laugh.

— John Branning

This essay is adapted from John Branning’s e-book Selfie-Facing: Analog Musings in a Digital World — a collection of his funniest pieces, along with a few clunkers thrown in for comparison. His work (if you can call humor blogging “work”) has appeared in The Hilario, Defenestration and the Bangor Daily News in Maine. You can find more of John’s writing at FactsOptional.com, along with some annoying pop-up ads.

Housework is for chumps

There’s nothing like kickin’ back and puttin’ your feet up in a nice, clean house — or so I’ve heard.

Face it, when you have kids and grandkids, the idea of a clean home may be nothing short of an unattainable dream. It would be great if our homes really looked like the ones on television.  Those people always had tons of children running around, too, but their homes were always spotless. Now granted, one had a live-in maid, one had a husband that washed the dishes in an apron, and one even wiggled her nose to get her house to look beautiful.

Whenever I’d do a weekend cleaning from top to bottom (and believe it or not that really did happen on occasion), I would tell friends and family if they wanted to see the house clean, they would need to come for a “proof viewing,” no earlier than 11 a.m. on Saturday morning and no later than 9 p.m. on Sunday night. I was not responsible for the state of my home any time outside of those hours.

Whenever I watched reality shows of police bursting into criminals’ homes unannounced, all I could think about was how horrified I would be — not so much because a cop just busted down my door or that I may be facing jail time, but the fact that a television camera was filming my dirty house for the entire world to see!

When I went back to work full time and my children were all still young, I considered asking a woman to come in and help me out one day a week just to keep on top of the work, but I was too embarrassed. I would have to hire a maid before I’d let a cleaning woman see this mess!

Whenever I had more than one small child running around at a time, I would usually wait until they took their naps to attempt a cleanup of the toys. After cleaning up millions of Legos, there was always that one toy that made just enough noise to wake the slumbering children.

They would sit up, look around and observe the clean room. One by one, they’d get up and make a bee line for the toy box. A clean room to a child is like a clean litter box to a cat. It somehow jumpstarts the auto-mess in their brains and they’re compelled to make a shambles of your just-cleaned masterpiece.

It took years for me to realize that, according to a child, toys do not belong in the toy box. (That goes for plastics in the cupboard and folded clothes in the laundry basket, too).

Now that the kids are older and have children of their own, they see what a chore it is to try and keep up with the housework. All the years of me trying to keep up on something that was literally impossible, I can say with a good conscience that I gave it my best shot. I just couldn’t do it and it only got worse when my kids got older. I think teenagers are sometimes worse to clean up after than toddlers.

I will admit I don’t go without blame here. My room and car are always a total mess. It’s sort of a rite of passage for a creative mind and, well, at least it’s MY mess. If everyone were responsible for their own messes, I guess I wouldn’t have such a problem with it. That could be why a lot of us women watch so much television. We want to escape the reality of our own messy abodes so we fantasize about the spotless homes of the movie stars.

On the other hand, maybe my house would be spotless if I got myself off the couch and actually DID something.

— Mari’ Emeraude

Mari’ Emeraude is a poet and humorist from Denver. This piece is excerped from her book, Even God Hates Spinach.

Fashion forward

This is my granddaughter, Birdie. She is the most beautiful thing.

Notice the headgear. I know it ages me, but all I can think of when I look at the myriad bows and flowers her mother joyfully places on her tiny noggin is HEDDA HOPPER. Hedda was known for her flamboyant hats, and it seems to me that all of this Hollywood frippery is coming back, HOORAY! And of course, Birdie is a tiny, Hollywood gal herself.

Here is how I imagine her when she is five. A bit scrawny, with scabs on both knees. A Band-Aid on her forehead from falling off her scooter. Running shoes. A popsicle in one hand, a ripped teddy bear in the other. A rather soiled tee shirt (the park, earlier in the day), and a tutu. She hates ballet, but loves the costumes.

At 10: Soccer shorts, a grass-stained jersey, shin guards, lime green sunglasses, and at least four white plastic barrettes holding down wild, sun-bleached curls. Nail polish, each nail a different color. A backpack with polka dots.

Aged 16. She is almost six feet tall, and her legs seem to begin just below her chin. She wears outlandish combinations of clothes that would look odd on other teens, but on her look like a trend just about to break. She never chews gum; it gives her hiccups. Perpetually tan, she keeps a surfboard in her closet and a bathing suit in her purse. She has very short hair, because she is always in the wind, it seems, and long hair is way too labor intensive. She hums to herself most of the time. She just got the leading role in her high school production of that old chestnut, LA LA Land.

Aged 20. She looks like her mother. Fit. Tousled bronze hair, now brushing her shoulders. She smiles readily, and like her mom, her enthusiasm knows no bounds. She loves to run, and has a hard time sitting still. And behind her left ear, most days? A flower. She has a band, and Birdie is the lead singer. She plays the tambourine.

I hope I will still be around to admire her.

— Molly D. Campbell

Molly D. Campbell writes a blog from her pantry, often in pajamas. She is a two-time Erma Bombeck Writing Competition award winner, winning honorable mentions in both the humor and human interest categories in 2010 and 2012. She self-published her first book, Characters in search of a novel. Her second book, Keep the Ends Loose, was released by The Story Plant in 2015, and her third novel, Crossing the Street, is due out in May 2017.

What would Erma do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Elaine Ambrose

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

Is that a dog?

Years ago, we had new neighbors move in to the upstairs apartment in the house next door. One Saturday afternoon shortly after the couple had moved in, I saw them out with their dog on the grassy median strip dividing our residential street. The couple was talking with some other neighbors, so I went out to say hi.

After meeting the friendly guy and his girlfriend, with no introductions to their scruffy dog sniffing at my feet, a question formulated in my head:

“Is that a male or female dog?”

(Because, really, how can you tell without being, y’know, obvious?)

In a moment of supreme brain-body disconnect, the question that came out of my mouth, however, was:

“Is that a dog?”

Write that down as an excellent example of how NOT to make a good first impression.

But it still cracks me up when I think about it, even though it happened more than 25 years ago.

I probably take myself and the foibles of life too seriously much of the time. But I also love laughing at myself. Not in a way that feels like a self put-down, but in a way that makes me feel human and hopefully approachable, in an “I screw up, you screw up, we all screw up” kind of way.

If I’m at a party, I’m not always a great conversationalist. I’m not especially politically astute (although for some reason lately, I’ve had more of an opinion than ever before — go figure). I’m not good at remembering details from trips and vacations, so I can’t name that “memorable” restaurant on the lake in Skaneateles, New York, and I can’t discuss which historic sites we visited in Philadelphia.  (Other than the Liberty Bell, of course — the memory bar isn’t set that low.) I’m also severely “directionally challenged,” so don’t even ask me the best way to get from East Poestenkill to Cropseyville.  You might end up in Massachusetts.

But I can tell a funny story about myself and I always seem to catch a listening ear.

Our imperfection — our vulnerability — is a great human connector. Like the K’nex building blocks that my kids played with years ago, it pulls us together and helps us stick with each other. In fact, a little more self-deprecating humor and a lot more K’nexing may be what the world needs right now.

— Karen DeBonis

Karen DeBonis blogs about her wild adventures as a homebody, including writing (aka avoiding housework), meditating (aka napping) and serving a nightly smorgasbord to deer and other critters in her yard (aka gardening). She lives in a wonderfully emptied nest in upstate New York with her husband of 34 years.

At the heart of it all

My husband Matthew teases me every year. “You want that key in a heart necklace, don’t you?” or, “Oh, look at that heart charm. I’m going to get you that!”

He knows if he really did, it’d be the first gift of his I’d take back. I can’t abide hearts. But in the spirit of the holiday, I tolerate heart-shaped chocolates — if they’re dark chocolate. Milk chocolate is a greater abomination than cute jewelry.

Disliking hearts as I do, you can see why Valentine’s Day and I did not get along until 16 years ago.

Okay, there’s more to it than that. Truth be told, not once as a young woman did a young man declare his infatuation with, his adoration of — not even his hope-to-get-to-know-you-better feelings for me on that day. Nothin’.

I did receive a beautiful arrangement of flowers when I was 18, but imagine opening the card on your first V-day bouquet to discover they’re from your sister.

My older sisters received tokens every year. I think young men just threw roses at them in the hall as they walked to class, cheering and whistling and laying down their jackets over old bubble gum and spit wads to protect their lovely feet from the filth of a high school floor.

I was attractive, too…in my own way. I had a large nose, lazy eye, pimples, braces from ninth grade on, and the constant appearance of pink eye due to hard contact lenses that, while aiming to make me more attractive, were viciously sucking the juices out of my eyeballs. But, man, I was a looker. Really!

Ah, well. Valentine’s Day is for all lovers, but an anniversary? That’s for two. It just so happens February 14 is the anniversary of the day Matthew announced he wanted to be my guy for life.

Sixteen years ago, we were strolling the San Antonio Zoo when he popped the question. He had asked my Dad’s permission, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when he led me off into a little area by a lush pond. A large blue parrot perched there, squawking noisily. I gazed at the pretty spot absentmindedly and then turned to leave, coming face to face with my boyfriend. Smiling up at him, I put my hand on his chest.

“Wow, your heart is really pounding!” I said lightly, completely oblivious as I made to go around him. He grabbed my hand and whirled me back. I saw him kneeling with a small box in his hand, but I have really no clue what he said after, “Hillary…”

“No way!” I cried, cutting him off and trying to bolt as he gripped my hand tighter. He continued his declaration until a few seconds later I heard quite distinctly, “Will you marry me?”

“Yes,” I said in a shaky voice.

My ring was beautiful, and I even got flowers. I’ve been spoiled every year since, including one exceptional year when my Love lead me out to discover a wine-colored guitar in the trunk of his car.

Matthew has a running joke he’ll no doubt be employing until we’re 90. When some commercial, movie or TV program shows a man proposing, he always turns to me and says, “See, she doesn’t try to run away.”

Well, he needn’t worry. It’s hard to wander off anywhere with these four balls chained about my legs, also known as children.

Oh, and the beautiful blue parrot who witnessed our engagement all those years ago? We framed his picture to hang on the wall of our home.

It looks far better there than a heart would.

— Hillary Ibarra

Hillary Ibarra has had several humor pieces published online, most at the incredible humorwriters.org. She is hoping to publish a book this year that she began when she was 17 and recently rediscovered with the help of her children. 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.

It (usually) never rains in California

When I was notified I had won a prize for rainmaking, I was gob-smacked while trying to close my umbrella. The last one to win that prestigious award was Burt Lancaster whom I’m often mistaken for without my makeup.

I don’t know what came over me, but after some graffiti artist seeing the unwashed car wrote “dirty girl”(though I’m actually a “nasty woman”) on my car, I was glad his pen got stuck in the soot.

I was then forced to wash my car by hand — these lovely hands only meant for rocking babies and royal waving.

Here I was trying to be a good citizen by conserving water in our drought-forsaken state of California and was actually being berated for it.

Still, my car washing  did bring the rain and so I will accept graciously (unlike Bob Dylan), the most coveted “Raindrops Are Falling On My Head” accolade.

Now I’ve been receiving threatening notes saying, “ENOUGH ALREADY!”

What you should know is that I am only in charge of causing the rain though not always stopping it, so shush!

I admit the excess has caused distress.

Even the animals in my neighborhood are walking two by two seeking an ark or two-bedroom suites.

The rain caused a roof leak not covered by my homeowner’s fee as the house was remodeled 50 years ago by the original owner. Nothing is covered in my homeowner’s fee except for the battery in my smoke detector. (As I do not do much comparison-shopping, does anyone know if $7,500 a year is excessive for a battery?)

I made calls to various roof repair services. No one was available until June. I asked what I should do until then and, coincidentally, they all gave the same spiritual advice, “Pray it doesn’t rain until then.”

I realized the storm was a tad lucky for me as I wouldn’t have to attend yet another baby shower for my second cousin who was having her fourth child with her third husband, who had planned to drive me to the event.

He had also promised to have a vasectomy the first of the year, but he couldn’t start his car as his battery got wet and which left me stuck at home leaving me oh, so disappointed while I lit the fireplace and sipped my hot toddy.

But enough about family!

In addition, I was stuck all day watching television while stuffing my face with leftover pizza. Oh, don’t cry for me, Pizzerias.

Having nothing to do with anything, I’m very curious to know why you all set aside only 24 hours to celebrate “Pizza Day” when, in fact, I celebrate it all year…week in and week out with only holidays set aside for Weight Watcher’s meetings?

A bit of truthiness here; sometimes when one has supreme and potent power like myself, one must be cautious when making a weather request change. Results may have unexpected consequences.

I recall my last conjuring while wishing for a tan. I slathered sun screen all over my body, which takes a bucket or so, and issued my command while singing, “Here Comes the Sun” and then, waving my wand.

I quickly learned that when the sun also rises, it fades the drapes.

Along with a roofer, I am currently seeking curtains.

— Jan Marshall

Jan Marshall has devoted her life’s work to humor and healing through books, columns and motivational speaking. As founder of the International Humor & Healing Institute, she worked with board members Norman Cousins, Steve Allen and other physicians and entertainers, including John Cleese. Her newest satirical survival book, Dancin’ Schmancin’ with the Scars: Finding the Humor No Matter What! is dedicated to Wounded Warriors, Gabrielle Giffords and Grieving Parents. She donates a percentage of the profits to these organizations as well as to the American Cancer Society and the American Brain Tumor Association.

Reflections of Erma