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From the irreverent trenches of motherhood

Anna Lefler, author of The CHICKtionary: From A-Line to Z-Snap, the Words Every Woman Should Know, will be offering humorous takes on motherhood on a new Nick Jr. show that launches Oct. 1.

“Parental Discretion With Stefanie Wilder-Taylor” airs on Mondays at 8 p.m. (PST) and 11 p.m. (EST). It’s repeated on Fridays at the same time. The show is part of a new block of comedy programming on Nick Jr. dubbed NickMom that’s aimed at mothers.

“Stefanie is a fantastic comedian — as well as author — and her self-deprecating style is a perfect match for parenting humor,” Lefler says. “She’s a natural as the host of the show, which features a variety of takes on motherhood, including a monologue, hidden camera segments, entertaining looks at vintage commercials and more.”

Lefler, who served on the 2012 EBWW faculty, will appear in several episodes of the new show. “I’m in the segment in which Stefanie conducts a discussion among three funny moms on a specific topic of motherhood, such as kids’ birthday parties and traveling with children,” she says.

Lefler describes her segments as “unscripted, entertaining exchanges about contemporary motherhood.” The panel retells “instances from our own parenthood experience in which we might (not) have turned in our finest motherhood performance,” she says. “The women who are in this segment are comedians and comic actresses, and the results are fun and irreverent.”

“Parental Discretion With Stefanie Wilder-Taylor” is produced “by folks who have written for SNL, SCTV and many other laugh-inducing acronyms,” Lefler says.

Lefler is an award-winning writer and humorist. Her work has appeared online at Salon.com, McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel and Funny Not Slutty, and her essays have been nationally syndicated. She has performed standup comedy in Los Angeles clubs, including the Hollywood Improv and the Comedy Store. She writes the popular humor blog Life Just Keeps Getting Weirder. Read her blog posting about the show.

“It’s a thrill to be a part of the show,” she says. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work with Stefanie and the amazing writing/producing team behind the show.  I can’t imagine a lovelier  — or funnier — experience.”

Are you America’s next author?

eBookMall.com has launched the first annual “America’s Next Author” competition, one that’s modeled after the popular “American Idol.”

In the search for new talent, the digital book retailer is reinventing the standard writing contest. Readers judge entries even before the official jury, and authors will get valuable feedback about their writing.

“This is not your average writing contest. In most writing contests, authors are left in the dark without ever knowing what other people entered or why they didn’t win,” said Martijn Leenders, managing director of eBookMall.com. “We wanted to change all that and make our writing contest a transparent and social experience.”

America’s Next Author is now accepting entries for the world’s first social writing contest. Unlike standard writing contests, the winning story will be chosen based on votes from fans and readers. Entering the contest is free, and the grand prize is $5,000. Contestants can get started here.

The competition includes eight nomination rounds in which the top-ranked author of each week will be nominated for the finals. Authors can join during any week of the competition, but joining sooner will increase their chances of winning. In this open system, even if an author’s story doesn’t get nominated during an initial round, it will remain in the competition until the final nomination round.

In addition to being judged by visitors, stories will be read by a panel of experienced professionals from the publishing industry who will be overseeing the contest. These judges will read entries and provide feedback to authors. They will also nominate four additional wildcard authors, adding them into the final rounds of competition.

“Getting feedback from the judges and readers will be a great learning opportunity for new authors. On top of that, while contestants are gathering votes online, they will also be creating worldwide exposure for themselves, which will be a career boost whether they make it to the finals or not,” said Leenders.

As in all writing contests, well-written, engaging stories are essential, but America’s Next Author is different in one important way: contestants can influence their chances of winning by mobilizing their fans online. Encouraging friends and family to vote will be crucial to an author’s success.

To enter the contest, writers can sign up here and enter a short story between 2,500 and 5,000 words. Participants can begin entering stories on Sept. 13, 2012, and voting begins on Oct. 9, 2012. A unique aspect of this contest is that people can join during any state of the competition, which gives authors plenty of opportunity to participate in America’s Next Author even if they’ve missed the first deadline.

To see the complete official rules for America’s Next Author, click here.

eBookMall.com offers digital books from the world’s biggest publishers, including Random House, Simon & Schuster and MacMillan. Books are available in PDF and ePub formats for Windows and Mac computers, Android tablets, dedicated eReaders and mobile phones.

Trashing the recycling

CAUTION: Rant ahead.

There are days when I just want to throw everything in our apartment away. And I mean everything. But that is not the generation my children are growing me up in.

I have always thought of myself as a good citizen in recycling terms. I’ve rinsed the bean and tomato residue out of thousands of tin cans and tossed hundreds of thousands of plastic bottles into blue bins.

But that was when it was easy. We lived in a house, and those recycling crates were in the garage, and not only were they picked up on a weekly basis, I didn’t have to look at the building terraces of polyethylene and steel on a minute-by-minute basis. Now we are in an apartment, a place that was supposed to be temporary quarters. A place where the recycling truck does not venture. So the recycling we collect is not in the garage, it is in the middle of my kitchen.

Recent conversations have gone something like this: “Mom, why did you just throw out that jar of peanut butter?” Then follows a digging spree, and a rescue of not only the peanut butter jar, but even more evidence of my sins. Enter huge, disappointed sighs as said child emerges with her arms full of plastic and tin (Gee, I thought only mom’s were capable of such melodramatic disappointment). Then she brightens. “I know, I can really recycle this big jar and make a marker holder out of it!”

That’s terrific. It will sit right beside the cans and jars and egg cartons that have found potential second lives as pencil holders, pen holders, highlighter holders and earring containers. I say “potential” because the completion of these projects takes about as much time as they would otherwise need to biodegrade in a typical landfill. And has my crafty daughter considered what will ultimately happen to the jars and cans she glues and paints when she goes off to college? Should I inform her that they will no longer be fit for proper recycling and will head directly to the landfill and leak even more chemicals into the ground because of her purist artistic and ecological sentiments? Seriously, by throwing them away now, I’m just avoiding the middleman.

There is no point mentioning any of that or the growing mountain in her room, so I shrug and go back to making dinner. I empty a couple cans of diced tomatoes into my pot of onions and garlic, and toss them, unrinsed, into the garbage. That’s right. The real garbage.

“Mom! Are you kidding me?” Said child retrieves the cans, rinses them along with her other dumpster-diving finds, and places them so very carefully on the teetering edge of the 150 cans and bottles she has been promising to take to the recycling center for three days. The row of overflowing paper bags is really getting to me, but I remain silent, hoping to make my point. Is there something else I can throw away? I know. A can of green chiles! I head to the pantry, almost tripping over the five brimming bags of recycling. I’m careful, though. There are no winners if those bags fall over.

Because the kitchen is small, I know the sixth bag my do-gooder starts will take a place at our kitchen table, and that’s where I must draw the line. Sure, some days a bag of freshly rinsed aluminum has more to say than one of my children. It sits straighter and keeps its elbows off the table, too. But family dinners are an important part of keeping the family cohesive.

In a further attempt at family cohesiveness, I’ve been summoning what I consider an admirable amount of restraint by not shoveling every single one of those tin cans into a heavy-duty contractor bag and heaving the entire contents into a dumpster. You heard me: a REGULAR dumpster.

The source of my frustration may be a little more complicated than I am letting on, because the fact is, I don’t want to stop with the “kitchen” recycling. Perhaps it has something to do with the way my two middle children create the same kinds of piles with ANYTHING, no matter where they are.

It would take a number of contractor bags, of course, but in my “fantasy cleanup,” after I finished with the kitchen, I would march directly into the real disaster zones. The bedrooms. And next? The designated teenage mode of transportation, not to be confused with a car, since it looks like something from an episode “Hoarders” on wheels.

Somewhere along the way, my kids became perfectly happy to wade through a thigh-deep mix of used, not-so-used and clean clothes, DVDs, books and actual garbage to get to their beds at night. And, even more to my surprise, it doesn’t embarrass them to ride around in a car that looks like a recycling center specifically for plastic bottles on the front passenger seat, and the mountain of donated clothing you’d typically see in the back of a Goodwill warehouse in the back seat.

Just so I’m clear: If I unleashed the contents of my teenagers’ rooms and the car they share into the world it would be like sending the Japanese debris field across the Pacific. The world would not be happy and CNN reporters would sit on our doorstep for months as they charted the movement of my childrens’ gym shorts to see where they landed and if they would take root. And trust me, with all the hormone-laced residue, they would not only take root, they would grow and support fully independent ecosystems.

So, I know this is just a fantasy, but some days I just want to give up. And throw. Everything. Out. Until a miracle happens. As if she knows where my can of chiles will be laid to rest, said child shakes her head and starts gathering up the five bags of recycling.

I turn back to my pot of onions, garlic, and tomatoes, and open the can of chiles. I don’t want to know – and refuse to watch – how she’ll manage to cram those bags into the already stuffed car.

That’s an entirely different rant.

— Ena Jones

Ena Jones writes middle grade fiction and occasional mom’s perspective pieces. She is also a moderator on Verlakay.com, a message board for children’s writers and illustrators.

My sanctuary

It seems I’m allergic to my house. I had a feeling I was, and now my worst fears are confirmed.  I’m allergic to dogs, cats, dust, mold and dust mites.

Ick. Dust mites?  You don’t take that one seriously until the doctor shows you a photo of a mite enlarged 100 percent. I’m surprised their office doesn’t have more people fainting.

Suffering from vertigo, clogged ear (try to imagine what it would feel like to have a very full water balloon stuffed into your ear), sniffles and watering eyes, I finally went to a specialist.  Apparently, like an addict, I need to hit bottom before I take action.

I was asked to lie on a table face down, and then the nice lady put dozens of pin pricks in my back.  She asked me to lie still for 15 minutes. Huh? Do nothing but itch for 15 minutes? Heaven. What woman with all my responsibilities is asked to just lie down and do nothing for 15 minutes?

So, it turns out my bedroom needs to be a “sanctuary” — free of all animals. (Technically, a dust mite is not an animal, but …)

When the doctor used the word “sanctuary,” my itchy eyes became big and round and hopeful. I’ve always wanted my room to be a sanctuary, but my cat, Pandy, can open my door. She has a secret little kitty tool kit. Combine that with advanced “rocking the door till it pops open” skills, and she’s in.

Once in, she pads her way to my glorious bed, leaps up and gives me “the look.” She smirks and her thought bubble says: yeah, I’m on the big bed. That’s right. OUR bed. And you are too lazy to get up and move me. I know you. Then she curls up and telepathically sends her dander up my nose.

But no more.  She’s banished to the guest room. Poor kitty.

I went to Target and bought every piece of dust mite bed covering. I cleaned the house like Heloise was coming for tea, picked up new allergy medicine and claimed my room back.  Next I’ll have to remodel several rooms, you know, in case there could be mold. Probably all new, beautifully upholstered furniture wouldn’t hurt.

It’s unfortunate that I won’t be able to clean the garage or the storage room anymore. Or enter antique stores (which I despise). But what’s a gal with allergies supposed to do?  I teach life balance and wellness. I can’t possibly go against doctor’s orders!  I really should spend as much time in my “sanctuary” as possible.  With a good book, perhaps. To heal.

Next week I go back to the allergist for a check up. What are the chances they will ask me to lie down for 15 minutes again?  I am desperately anticipating they will tell me that my only hope for a healthy season will be to buy a new Audi with surround sound and hypoallergenic upholstery — and ban all animals from it.

So, you know where this is going. I intend to milk this for all it’s worth. (Unless I’m allergic to milk). After all, I’ve lived with a water balloon in my ear and itchy eyes and a runny nose … and vertigo. Vertigo worse than Jodie Foster suffered in the movie “Contact” after she had to uncontrollably vibrate during take-off.

It’s time to take control. And a Claritin.

— Molly Cox

Molly Cox is a speaker, co-author of the book, Improvise This! How to Think on Your Feet so You Don’t Fall on Your Face and producer of the award-winning film, “Note to Self,” about self-care for caregivers.  She was the co-writer for the Mr. Rogers Lifetime Achievement Awards and writes the humor column for the National Speakers Association Minnesota monthly newsletter.

When mom goes back to school

(Originally published by the Orange County Register on Aug. 28, 2012. Reposted by permission.)

This year, we made back-to-school shopping a family affair. Which meant while my husband crammed four kids in a red Target cart and launched them down various aisles in an attempt to make and break new speed records, I spent two hours checking off lists over in school supply.

Four Fiskar scissors, 30 glue sticks and 96 Ticonderoga pencils later, I thought I’d finally covered it all. But then I realized I’d forgotten someone: me.

Because this year, I’m going back to school.

When I tell people this, I find that most adults and all kids look at me with a flabbergasted cringe that begs, “Why?”

So maybe I’m not the breadwinner around here. And I’ll concede that a Master’s degree in Professional Writing from USC may sound less lucrative than an MBA or Juris Doctorate. But I’ve been waiting for this day for 12 years.

I white-knuckled my way through the GRE, spent two months triple guessing my application essay, and begged, bribed and pleaded four professional relationships to write a few nice words about me. So I deserve to buy something with three rings and a pocket for myself.

As I survey the bins of wide-ruled and college-ruled, I wonder what else does a student of writing need? They didn’t give me a list. I reach for a blue spiral notebook and as I hold it, it fades into another blue notebook from my past, one labeled as belonging to Jacob G.

Jacob G. was one of my seventh grade students when I taught English the year after I finished college. He was placed in my ESL/Special Education class, because with a transient past, no one had records determining where he actually belonged. I quickly realized he was bright and cheerful and wise beyond his years. But true to his track record, he vanished from my class a month into the school year, leaving his spiral blue journal behind, with only one clever passage written on the first page.

I kept that notebook well past Jacob’s disappearance, and well past my tenure at that school when I left to stay home with my firstborn. In subsequent years, I’d occasionally find it and scribble within a grocery list or insurance quote. But like the notebook,  I kept Jacob in my life — my mind — reminding myself that someday I’d be ready to return to kids like him and help them fill up their pages.

Over the years, blank pages have carried me through four pregnancies, two post-partums and volumes of otherwise amusing, humiliating and heartbreaking chapters. Blank pages have become me—what I enfold on the magical days and what I fear on the blocked ones.

At this moment on aisle 34, it’s the fear that grips me: the surface fears that the laundry will never get done again, that the dog might literally eat my homework, or that the kids might forget we even have a dog while I’m away at class.

And then there are the real ones: that the kids might occasionally come home to an empty house, that my husband may question his place in my new world, that my superiors may deem me too inferior for theirs.

I reach out and take a shiny new blue notebook and throw it on top of my heaping cart. I’m not quite sure what words will fill it over the next two years, but I guess I’m ready to find out.

— Autumn McAlpin

Autumn McAlpin is a freelance writer and mother of four whose column, Cracking Up, runs weekly in the Orange County Register‘s parenting section. She also writes regularly about family entertainment, and is the author of the book Real World 101: A Survival Guide to Life After High School.

The maestro

(This essay is excerpted from Molly D. Campbell’s first book, Characters in search of a novel. Erma Bombeck’s son, Matt, calls it “a wonderful, original book.” A two-time Erma Bombeck Writing Competition winner, Molly credits the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop for allowing her “to gain validation as a person who actually can write.”)

My father was far from ordinary. Other children’s dads were doctors, lawyers and teachers. Their dads went to work in the morning and came home for dinner. Their dads played golf on the weekends. My father was a maestro.

I grew up hearing him play the violin, beautifully. He had a lovely one, with real gold on the pegs, and also on the bow. It had a beautiful velvet-lined case, with little pockets for rosin and extra strings. There was a silk-lined velvet blanket to cover the violin. When he played, I used the case as a doll bed.

I grew up in concert halls, sitting very quietly during rehearsals, where my father stood on a big podium in front of the orchestra, waving his arms. Everyone in the orchestra seemed in awe of my Dad. I thought it was because he was so handsome. But I knew he was the boss of all of those musicians, and I was very proud.

When my father went to work, it was at night. After an early dinner, he would get dressed. I loved this ritual. First the beautiful white shirt with all the little pleats. Pearl buttons. Black pants with a satin stripe down the sides. Cummerbund. Dad had a few different pairs of cufflinks, and I got to choose which ones he wore. I felt so important. Then the shiny patent leather shoes. And finally, the tails and bow tie, which he tied himself. He was a glorious man.

I hated actually going to see him conduct, because those evenings were long and boring. I got tired of watching him in front of the orchestra after about five minutes. My mother had made it clear that there was to be no twitching, no neck craning and no noise. I perfected this, but for years afterwards, I hated going to concerts, remembering the constraints of childhood!

My father was magnificently handsome. He was tall, dark and charming. He was the object of many women’s fantasies, and I think indulged many of them. It made me cherish him all the more, because I think in my childish subconscious, I was afraid one of his admirers might carry him away from us.

The maestro was my biggest fan. He thought I was beautiful when I had pimples. He was the first person to tell me that I should be a writer. He was never too busy to hug, or to listen. We watched “The Tonight Show” together every weeknight. He concocted very interesting late-night snacks.

The Maestro died when I was a young mother. I wish I could go to just one more concert. I wouldn’t move a muscle.

— 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. This essay won an honorable mention this year. She self-published Characters in search of a novel, her first book.

Totally awesome

I was first in a checkout to pay for two large cans of Maxwell House coffee with a raincheck two months old.

The cashier explained my raincheck needed to be initialed by the assistant manager. Whether all rainchecks must be initialed, or only those redeemed long after the sales date, I didn’t know. The assistant manager was busy, which meant waiting for him to come to the checkout. Next in line behind me was a woman holding a copy of a Vancouver daily in one hand and coins in the other.

“I have time,” I said. “I don’t mind waiting,” and stepped aside to let the lady buy her newspaper while I waited.

“Awesome!” the cashier said. Never before had anyone called me awesome. I glowed.

The lady stepped forward and paid for her Province newspaper with exact cash.

“Awesome!” the cashier said, rang up the sale and tucked the newspaper in a plastic bag.

What, I wondered, was so awesome about counting out exact pennies to buy a newspaper? Was the cashier expressing her appreciation for not having to wait while the customer swiped a credit card? Or for not having to make change?

About then, the assistant manager arrived. The cashier explained to him I had this two-month-old raincheck. He scrawled his initials on the slip and pocketed his ballpoint. “Awesome!” the cashier said.

And why was he awesome? That he could write his own initials? That he came supplied with his own ballpoint? (How many stores have I been in where they have only one ballpoint shared by all the staff? I’ve had to wait while the hunt goes on to find who ran off with the ballpoint now.)

When I exited the store hugging my two cans of coffee, the glow from being praised as awesome had cooled to a smoldering resentment at the indiscriminate use of the word ‘awesome.’ People sprinkle it through conversations as randomly as the four-letter ‘f’ word.

My annoyance with ‘awesome’ peaked a year ago while I was taking an online writing course; students were encouraged to offer feedback. But often feedback consisted of “Awesome!” I argued this gave no guidance to the student toward writing another piece equally awesome, because the word lacked specificity and, thus, any hint of what made the piece awesome.

Was the piece awesome for its use of proper nouns? Descriptive verbs? Was the piece funny? Did it evoke tears, revive memories, stir buried emotions?

Following my criticism, student controversy went on entry after entry. Like  comments posted in online newspapers, they deteriorated into name calling and snide remarks about areas wide of the subject.

In the end, the word ‘awesome’ ceased to pepper critiques, replaced instead by down-to-earth terms with particular meanings.

Four months later, The Writer magazine published an article about the best way to offer criticism in a writers’ group. Author Joni B. Cole advised, “If the discussion goes no deeper than generalities (‘I was bored’; or ‘Good job!”), push for more.”

I saw my opening and I took it, writing a brief letter to the magazine about my ‘awesome’ online experience.

The Writer printed my letter in its September 2010 issue. In its May 2011 issue, the magazine excerpted “Superlatives 101” from Arthur Plotnik’s book, Better Than Great.  He has compiled 5,774 alternatives to ‘awesome.’ Arthur Plotnik and I don’t stand alone.

Matt Richardson of Make Magazine used a Staples’ large red “Easy” button to create an “Awesome” button that plugs into your computer and will insert a random synonym for ‘awesome’ whenever you need one.

Just hit the button.

—  Claudette Sandecki

Claudette Sandecki, 77, began as a writer by penning letters to the editor of various newspapers In 1988, she was invited to write a weekly column, “Through Bifocals,” for The Terrace Standard in Terrace, British Columbia. She aspires “to write funny like David Sedaris or Dave Barry.” Next week, she begins an online humor writing course, saying, “Hope springs eternal.”

Tractor “Friends”

Men have their passions, bless them, but how could a love of tractors lead to a Jennifer Aniston show?

Some men love Chevies. They’ll see every Chevy on the road, quietly noting year, model and the suitability of the person driving it. A Ford man just has to stop and gawk if a Mustang cruises by, while a John Deere enthusiast thrills to the familiar sound of that put-put engine anywhere.

My husband loves red tractors. Particularly International Harvesters – IH, for short.

Drive with him down a busy highway, dodging semi-trailers and pot holes, and Keith will suddenly point to a rusted red heap of metal in a fencerow a hundred yards away and say, “Look at that. A Farmall M.”

Or watch a movie with him, something as far removed from farming as “A Christmas Story.” Did you know there’s a Farmall in that holiday classic? Mm-hm. When Ralphie and his family are watching the town’s Christmas parade, a Farmall H pulls the Santa Claus float. Watch for it. Or come over to our house and Keith will point it out to you. Every time.

And, oh joy, IH made lots of other things, too. IH trucks and IH air conditioners, IH milking equipment and IH belt buckles. Keith has a few of those, and an IH tire gauge, too. He even subscribes to an IH magazine, “Red Power.” Oh, yeah. Feel the iron muscle.

Now, a motors and metal guy like that wouldn’t necessarily be interested in a sit-com like “Friends,” though it helps that one of the co-stars is the gorgeous Jennifer Aniston. I guess that’s what enticed him to watch it, back in its heyday, long enough to notice what was just sitting there in her kitchen for all the world to see, though I bet most of the world missed it: an IH refrigerator.

Yes! Right there on national TV, right there on the set of one of the most popular shows ever. My Keith just about fell out of his recliner one night when he said, “Look at that! An IH fridge!”

“Friends” is a comedy about relationships and being there for each other and all that yucky, sentimental stuff that girls go for, and a lot of the action takes place right there in Jen’s kitchen. Keith just loves it.

— Cindy O. Herman

Cindy O. Herman lives and writes near her husband’s family farm in Central Pennsylvania, where she has been brainwashed into liking only RED tractors. This humorous essay, written for her weekly column in The Daily Item (Sunbury, Pa.), received first place in the 2012 Keystone Press Awards.

Reflections of Erma