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Between the covers

(Excerpt about Erma Bombeck from Dave Astor’s new memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional is reprinted by permission of the author. The book chronicles Astor’s years covering cartoonists, columnists and other celebrities for Editor & Publisher magazine.)

Erma Bombeck, one of the funniest columnists of either gender, died at age 69 in April 1996 after an unsuccessful kidney transplant that followed several years of dialysis — so I quickly called up some of her journalism-world peers for a tribute story. A sampling of their comments: “Erma was a wonderful writer,” said advice columnist Abigail Van Buren. “She showed us that everyday life is worth writing about,” noted National Society of Newspaper Columnists president Sheila Stroup of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “She was one of the most gracious people I’ve ever met in the business,” recalled humor columnist Dave Barry.

Van Buren said Bombeck may have been “too terrific” a person, refusing to use her celebrity status to try to get a new kidney sooner. “She waited in line like everyone else,” noted the “Dear Abby” writer with a touch of wonder in her voice.

Bombeck, a longtime Ohio resident who later moved to Arizona, authored more than a dozen best-selling books. She collaborated with “The Family Circus” cartoonist Bil Keane on 1971’s Just Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own!, and I later heard Bil joke: I’m the only person other than Bill Bombeck who’s been between the covers with Erma!”

One way Erma’s name and her suburban humor live on is via the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop associated with the University of Dayton, her alma mater. The biennial workshop was formerly directed by humor columnist Time Bete, who would undoubtedly confirm that “biennial” means “every two years.”

—  Dave Astor

Dave Astor blogs for the Huffington Post. He also writes the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” column, which appears weekly in the Montclair (N.J.) Times and serves on the National Society of Newspaper Columnists board. For 25 years he wrote for Editor and Publisher.

Erma nailed it

The greatest thrill of having been honored “The 2010 Erma Bombeck Global Humor Winner” is being blessed by the association with Erma and her lasting legacy of laughter.

From California to New York and especially everywhere in between, I am frequently struck by Erma’s enduring popularity spanning several generations. Her books not only live on, they rock!

Recently in Studio City, Calif., while having my corns buffed and my cuticles pruned, I overheard salon buddies Anna and Rita swapping lines from Erma’s books and laughing heartily.

Anna: “Never lend your car to anyone whom you have given birth.”

Rita: “It goes without saying that you should never have more children than you have car windows.”

Anna: “I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.”

The power of humor to delight, comfort, and unite strangers and friends alike is indomitable. Erma knew that and she nailed it.

— Barb Best

Barb Best is the 2010 Erma Bombeck Global Humor Winner and author of “I Feel Your Pain” humor blog.  Her new eBook, 100 Fast & Funny: Ha-Musings by Barb Best, is available at Amazon.

Sincerefully

(Reposted by permission. Originally appeared on nationally syndicated humorist Tracy Beckerman’s blog, Lost in Suburbia.

Dear Grammar Police,

I wanted to thank you publicly for noticing a grammatical error in my recent column (“Tracy Beckerman, Dis-Robed”), with regard to my use of the pronoun “I.”

Apparently I had written, “the kids and I,” when I should have said “the kids and me.” This was a gross error of unparalleled magnitude and I apologize profusely for committing this miscarriage of syntax and offending your finely tuned grammatical sensibilities. I realize that as a writer, I should be well-schooled in the use of “I vs. Me,” but it’s (its?) often difficult to remember all the rules when I’m focused on much less important things like making sure my humor column is funny. There (Their? They’re?) are so many rules to remember, (:? ;?) such as not ending a sentence with a preposition like another writer does who (whom? that?) I went to school with. Or a sentence fragment. And starting a sentence with a conjunction.

I’m sure my 3rd grade English teacher, Mrs. Kinsler, (may she rest in peace. Or is it piece?) would be appalled to know that I had not yet mastered the “I vs. Me” rule. She once sent a letter home to my parents and I (me and my parents?) about my ongoing problems with this rule, and one time she even sent me to the principal (principle??) because of it.

Shame on me that this is something I still have a problem with.

Sadly, as a writer in today’s technological age, I have become lazy and prefer to spend my time lying (laying?) around eating bon bons and letting the computer’s spell and grammar check do the work for me. This is a continual (continuous?) challenge for me and something I know I need to work on because it affects (effects?) my readers who (whom?) count on me to get it right (write? rite? Jeez.). I plan to address this forthwith (in a fortnight, actually, if I am being forthcoming), and assure you my editors and I (and me? Me and my editors? Whatever!) will make every attempt to make sure this does not happen again.

Thank you so much for your understanding. You sound like someone I could really be friends with.

Sincerely, or most sincerely, but definitely not sincerefully,

Tracy Beckerman

Tracy Beckerman, part of the EBWW faculty, writes the syndicated humor column “Lost in Suburbia,” which is carried by more than 400 newspapers nationally. Combined with her blog by the same name, “Lost in Suburbia” reaches up to 10 million readers weekly. She wrote the book Rebel without a Minivan: Observations on Life in the ’Burbs. Her next book, Lost in Suburbia:  A Momoir.  How I Got Pregnant, Lost Myself, and Got My Cool Back in the New Jersey Suburbs, will be published next spring.

Fifty shades of flannel

(This parody of Fifty Shades of Grey is reposted by permission.  It originally appeared on FanFiction.net and sparked interest from Entertainment Weekly as an editor’s pick, Today.com, ABC News and the Associated Press.)

“Damn you Lanz nightgown,” I think as I fall into the office of Christian Grey who is the mind-reeling combination of former crack baby, Adonis, billionaire, public university graduate and financial savant.

How did I arrive in the spacious and austere offices of Mr. Grey and in my favorite flannel sleep garment, no less? My daughter, Anastasia Steele, was supposed to interview this wunderkind for her college newspaper.

Let me start again. Actually her roommate, Kate, was supposed to conduct the interview. She fell ill and pressed Anastasia into service. When Anastasia’s car (unreliable VW!) broke down, she called me, and well, here I am.

Mr. Grey seamlessly moves as if a gazelle gliding on Crisco to help me up. His hand feels solid and forbidding on my elbow.

“Let me help you, Mrs. Steele.”

I bite my lower lip (a childish habit which I’m told drives some gentlemen wild) and straighten out the elastic on my sleeves. I push back a stray tendril of hair (Revlon Colorsilk Medium Ash Brown) and attempt to steady myself in my forest green Crocs.

“I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I wouldn’t blame you a bit if you wanted to spank me.”

I looked quickly into his piercing eyes as he regarded me with wonder and a hint of intrigue.

Spanking? Where had that come from?

“Mrs. Steele, I can assure you I would never lift your Lanz without your permission.”

I felt my face grow hot.

He knows Lanz. What other woman secrets does he understand and yet tantalizingly keep just beyond my grasp? Biore Pore Strips in my ears? Waxing my big toe? Pinot Grigio and Fritos whilst watching Real Housewives?

My reverie was broken by his manly hand extending a piece of paper towards me.

I adjusted the cotton lace at my neck and my yellow Scrunchie. He scowled. But why?

“I’d like you to read this Mrs. Steele. I know we’ve just met, but I feel that you and I have a connection…a potential for a relationship that will be both terrifying and satisfying.”

I calmly remember that I am, after all, the married mother of three: a cornerstone of the Parent Association: a neighborhood icon, if you will; woman who has seen the inside of a front-loading washer after clothes come back from camp. I know terrifying Mr. Grey, I think smugly.

He looks amused and points me towards a sleek black leather couch. I take a seat and promptly slide off. Flannel, you cruel mistress. I silently curse.

He helps me up once again, and I am certain his eyes quickly take in the high-cut briefs with happy frog pattern that I have inadvertently flashed him. High-cut, Mr. Grey.

I settle myself once again on the couch. This time being careful to fold my Lanz into a sort of pantsuit arrangement around my thighs.

“Dominant-Submissive Agreement” reads the first line on the creamy ivory paper I am regarding.

The first line on the piece of paper. Holy cow! What in the name of metal balls in people’s butts is this?

Flannel is to be worn only when the Submissive is in the presence of the Dominant.

Ankle-length athletic socks of a clean white nature MUST be worn at all times. Particularly whilst vacuuming and watching TV.

The Submissive is to refrain from adjusting the elastic sleeves or buttons on the front (or back if Submissive is a “Reverse Wearer” of Lanz) unless specifically instructed to do so by the Dominant.

The list went on and my head swam with details. This beguiling satyr of a man! He knows the ways of Lanz: the ballooning illusion of comfort that hides a roiling sea of passion. So few understand. So few will ever know.

He stood in his charcoal suit regarding me steadily. He knew I knew that he knew. What I know that now he so clearly knows too.

I had never been as frightened or as sure of anything in my life.

— Lucia Paul

Lucia Paul, who wrote this piece under the pseudonym Nancy O’Toole, is a humorous essayist from Minneapolis. Her book, Bad Catholic Mothers: A Book of Revelations, came out in 2009.

My husband, the “magic” man

(Michele Wojciechowski, part of the 2012 EBWW faculty, is publishing her first humorous book, Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box. Here’s an excerpt.) 

There are some things in life that just don’t mix: oil and water, gas and a match, ketchup and ice cream (unless you’re into that sort of thing — gag).

I’ve discovered a new one: my husband and the Magic Eraser.

If you don’t know what the Magic Eraser is, let me tell you about it. It’s this cleaning thing (yes, I’m sure those are the exact words used by the product’s market­ing department) by Mr. Clean. It’s white and kind of spongy, and is shaped much like an eraser.

And it’s magic. Really.

You wet it and wipe a black mark on your wall — POOF! It’s gone. No sticky cleaners to use. Nothing. It’s just gone.

It reminds me of what my late grandmother used to say about the fax machine: “I don’t understand how it does it; it’s like voodoo.”

Since we’ve gotten our house together to be shown, we’ve cleaned it so much. In fact, we’ve probably cleaned it more in the last week than we have in the last decade.

(And if you’re my mother-in-law, and you’re reading this, please disregard that previous sentence. It’s lies, all lies. Our house is always sparkling clean. I swear.)

The one thing about getting your house so clean is that you start to notice things that you normally wouldn’t.

Here’s the part where my husband and the Magic Eraser come in.

Brad began using the Magic Eraser on spots that were obvious, like fingerprints or a smear here or there.

Now he’s begun to get a little batty with it.

He’s a man on a mission…

I came downstairs the other day—and it was on a day when there were people scheduled to look at the house—and he suddenly came walking by, eraser in hand.

“Honey, what are you doing?” I asked. “We’re get­ting ready to go.”

“Just a minute. Look at all these spots on the wall. I’ve got to get rid of them,” he replied.

I didn’t see a thing. But his face was about one mil­limeter from the wall, so he must have been able to see things that I couldn’t.

Or he’s developed superpowers and can see into the very fiber of the walls. The way he’s been cleaning, that’s more likely what has happened.

So we’re getting ready to leave to have lunch and see a movie. He got the Magic Eraser again.

“Wait a minute, there’s a mark here on the door,” he said, scrubbing away.

Then he saw — GASP — a tiny spot near the door­knob.

On the basement door.

Where no one is going to look anyway.

(I can guarantee that there are no spots of any kind on our walls, doors, doorframes, ceilings, closet doors, or cabinet doors. At least none that I’ve seen or that my husband and his superpowers and trusty Magic Eraser have seen.)

He kept Magic Erasering the walls until I told him that if we didn’t leave immediately, we would not only miss lunch and the movie, but we would look like goof­balls when the people who were coming to view the home walked in.

Can you imagine that? We’d look completely OCD. Or like we were cleaning up from a crime scene — neither of which makes a good impression on potential buyers.

By this time, our house was even more sparkling clean than it was five minutes before, when we were initially leaving. And he had used this particular Magic Eraser until it was all scrunchy looking. It had seen better days. He threw it away, and we got ready to leave.

First, though, he had to run upstairs to get some­thing. And it’s a good thing he did.

In his quest to keep our house looking as clean as possible, my husband had taken all of our dirty laundry down to the basement early that morning.

Except for one thing.

A pair of dirty underwear that he dropped on the steps.

Where anyone viewing the house would have not only seen them, but also had to step over them.

And I don’t know about you, but seeing someone else’s dirty underwear doesn’t exactly make me want to buy a house.

The checklist we consult before leaving the house will now include, “Make sure there’s no dirty underwear on the floor.”

Because that’s one thing the Magic Eraser can’t get rid of.

— Michele Wojciechowski

Michele Wojciechowski, part of the faculty at the 2012 EBWW, is a national award-winning freelance writer and humorist who writes the weekly humor column Wojo’s World.

Ink in the blood

I like to write. For me, it is a labor of love.

Writing takes time. It’s not physical labor, but it can be just as exhausting.

To report an accurate story, concentration and absorbing details and the setting are essential. Even more difficult is deciphering my scraggly handwriting afterwards. Trying to properly tell the story in an assigned number of words against a deadline adds to the creative challenge.

The good people of many of the events and stories I chronicle don’t necessarily crave the publicity. But they do appreciate the consideration, especially when they have put so much effort into their own work or hobby or community service. Those are stories worth telling.

Of course, when I write about my family, all bets are off. So far, though, I haven’t been barred from any family gatherings.

For the longest time, I thought everyone could write. I eventually discovered that most people don’t have my passion for writing.

I’m not bragging. I have much to learn in the writing field. In fact, I strive to improve my style, approach and content. This spring I attended three very different writing workshops in the space of six weeks. I was bombarded with helpful and practical information. The poets, columnists, scriptwriters and authors offered invaluable personal and professional tips.

The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop held at the University of Dayton was incredible. Perhaps that’s because a huge majority of the hundreds of participants were women. They didn’t hold anything back, and we didn’t lack for laughter or levity. It truly was inspirational.

I realize I have several people to thank for teaching and encouraging me in my writing. Some were high school and college teachers. Most, like Hymie Williams, were practitioners.

Hymie was a sports writer for the Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio. He and two news reporters anchored the paper’s Canton bureau. Out of the blue, Hymie called me one day to ask if I would be willing to fill in for him while he was on vacation. I was 16 years old then. Of course I jumped at the chance.

I had been sending Hymie and other local papers summaries of the Stark County Hot Stove League baseball games. Coaches called in the scores to our home since my father was the league’s secretary. I usually answered the phone and quizzed the callers for any significant details about the games.

I wrote up the results and next day looked for the story in the newspaper. I was heartened to see that the articles were consistently published with only minor changes.

I enjoyed my little stint as a sports reporter, especially since it was at the start of the high school football season. I had lots on which to report.

This opportunity heavily influenced my choice of a college major. I graduated with a degree in journalism, but quickly made a left-hand turn for a 30-year career in public education. When I retired, a newspaper came calling and the ink in my veins started flowing once again.

It is an honor and a privilege to be able to write a weekly newspaper column, this blog and other feature stories that shine the spotlight on deserving subjects. Their stories are refreshing, especially given all the negative news that dominates the national media. I enjoy sharing my photographs, too. But that’s a story for another time.

My goal is to continue spreading as much good news as I can, and there is still plenty to tell. After all, writing is my labor of love.

— Bruce Stambaugh

Bruce Stambaugh pens the blog, Roadkill Crossing, and other tales from Amish Country. His weekly column appears in The Holmes Bargain Hunter in Millersburg, Ohio.

Don’t roll your eyes

Ruth Nemzoff talks about her latest book, Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family, to be published Sept. 4 by Palgrave Macmillan. At the age of 66, Nemzoff published her first book, Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children. Like Erma Bombeck, Nemzoff addresses family issues with wit and wisdom.

Why did you write the book?

When I visited more than 300 venues in five countries on a tour for my last book, I found the most common question about parents and adult children centered around in-law children. Usually, the question was about a daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship — i.e., a mother-in-law feeling pushed aside or a daughter-in-law feeling criticized. Questions about a son-in-law tended to be around whether he was earning enough or failing to do jobs around the house. What these questions said to me was that our society has not caught up on changing gender roles. The expectation still seems to be that the husband will be the earner. If he’s not, it is suspect to the older generation.

What are some of the tensions between two or more sets of in-laws?

The weapons of choice tend to be money, time and grandchildren. With the grandchildren, grandparents compete over who gets to spend more time with their adult children and the grandkids, and who loves them more. Money can come into play when one set of in-laws feels that the other group is able to spend more money, and, as such, is bribing the children/grandchildren to like them.

What do parents want?

Most parents want some relationship with their child. They want credit for what they’ve done for their child — an understanding that they tried the best they could — and perhaps forgiveness for the mistakes they’ve made knowingly or unknowingly. After 18 years of making decisions and sacrifices for their children, they want to move forward and be a part of their children’s future life adventures.

What do children want?

I think most young couples want a chance to bond with each other — to create a comfortable home for their families. They don’t want somebody checking on, and commenting on, every decision that they make. They want to make their own mistakes, and figure out how to make a life for themselves and their families.

However, having a relationship with your in-laws and enjoying marital independence are not mutually exclusive. Just as we have friendships with people whom we enjoy but don’t want intervening in our lives, we can have loving relationships with our in-laws without feeling steamrolled by them.

Can you provide a few hints on how to foster better relationships with your in-laws?

I give a comprehensive list of tips in Chapter 11 of Don’t Roll Your Eyes, but here are few of the highlights:

• Try to put yourself in your in-law’s shoes.

• Don’t make a big deal out of everything — we all make mistakes, and we need forgive each other for slights.

• Reframe things with a positive view. For example, if your kids don’t call you, don’t complain that they never want to talk but rather consider that it’s nice that they’re good parents who are spending time with their own children.

• Forget fantasy; deal with reality. As mother-in-law, you may be frustrated that your daughter-in-law isn’t very physically affectionate towards you, but you should be pleased at least that she’s very polite — enjoy what you’ve got!

• Don’t hold on to grudges.

• Be curious about your in-laws’ culture, beliefs, traditions, lives. Try to understand why people think the way they do — don’t discount and dismiss their ideas out of hand.

• Remember that we’re all new to this game and trying to figure out how to make it work.

— Ruth Nemzoff

Author and activist Ruth Nemzoff is a resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. The mother of four children, she lectures on parenting adult children, relationships and family dynamics. She served three terms in the New Hampshire Legislature and was New Hampshire Deputy Commissioner of Health and Welfare.

The final stretch

(This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register Aug. 22. Reprinted by permission.)

All the clichés come to mind. The runner crosses the finish line, a ribbon billows from either side of her chest. A mountain climber smiles for a picture at the summit. A painter, who after applying his last stroke, steps back to see the completed artwork.

My finish line is close; my mountain peak is in view. For me it’s holding my book in my hands. For two years I have been working on self-publishing My Laundry Museum & Other Messy Gifts of Motherhood, a collection of essays originating from my “Mom’s Voice” columns in the Orange County Register.

The process has been exhilarating, scary and filled with obstacles. When I first started on this journey, I set up a meeting with the owner of the paper I used to write for. I prepared a little PowerPoint presentation to show him, sharing my goal, asking if he would like to be involved.

“Who told you this was good?” he asked. Following up with, “How do you know it will sell?” I didn’t want to be rude and point out that the contents of the book were already appearing in his paper each week, but I did make a gentle allusion, to which he replied, “Just because it’s good as a column, doesn’t mean it’s good as a book.”

And then his final zinger, “How would you feel if you only sold one copy?” My response was from the heart, “I would feel great  because this is a passion project for me, a personal goal.” (Did he just miss the PowerPoint?) “Just to hold the book in my hands will make me very happy,” I explained.

The meeting concluded. His words of wisdom: find someone who is “real” to tell me if my work is good or not, figure out if I have something that will sell, and before that, don’t assume anyone will help me.

I walked out of his office with a “thank you” and a smile. I got in my car, pulled onto the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach and cried all the way back to Costa Mesa. My tears were not because I believed anything he told me, but because I wasn’t prepared for the shadow of doubt he attempted to cast over my dream. I cried simply because he hurt my feelings

I knew I wouldn’t take any of his advice. I believed in my goal and would proceed.

And proceed is exactly what I did. One thing I did right the following two years was surround myself with a group of the most wonderful, positive and talented people I knew. I built a team. At the center of the team were my loyal readers who support me each week.

I remember the day my friend Marrie, a brilliant writer, sat with me. My work was spread all over my dining room table as she began to help me find a shape to the book, looking for the thread that connected the pieces, ditching ones that didn’t belong. From there we went through multiple rounds of edits. She helped me to sharpen my work and improve my craft in unexpected ways.

My friend Shannon, a phenomenal photographer, came over one day with her camera equipment and helped make my visions of the cover photo materialize. My brother-in-law Kevin, a gifted graphic artist, took the photo and worked with me to finish the cover. I learned how to get my work copyrighted, how to get an ISBN number and barcode for the back. Frank was the guy who took my Word documents, waved a magic wand and designed the inside of the book, always giving me the final say. One never thinks that the decision of where to put page numbers will be a tough one, but it is.

I chose my paper for the pages the way someone chooses a wedding dress; I knew I wanted off-white and a certain weight – not flimsy.

Next week, the machines will be running, the words closest to my heart will be spit onto the papers that will be cut and bound. I will hold the book in my hands. The shadow of doubt forever gone.

Stay tuned for information about my book release party this fall.

— Jill Fales

Jill Fales writes the weekly “Mom’s Voice” column for The Orange County Register. My Laundry Museum & Other Messy Gifts of Motherhood, published through Greyden Press, is her first book.

Reflections of Erma