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Happy New Groundhog’s Day!

I have a holiday suggestion that, once enough states ratify the change to the Constitution, will profoundly affect the happiness and well being of all Americans. Let’s forget New Year’s resolutions and go for Groundhog’s Day resolutions. To establish why this makes sense, let’s look at weight loss, the #1 goal of all Americans who have mirrors in their bathrooms.

On Dec. 31, I sit around eating leftover turkey sandwiches and ponder goals to set for the New Year, which starts the next day. I resolve to lose 15 pounds. I write it down on a sticky note on the fridge. I underline the 15. Then off I go to eat chips and dip, shrimp cocktails, mixed nuts, dipped vegetable sticks, buffalo wings, cheese, little hotdog things in barbecue sauce, beef stick slices on crackers, cheesecake, pie and baklava at the New Year’s Party down the street. I also consume flagons of sugary drinks as I say goodbye to the old year and bring in the new.

New Year’s Day has arrived, but I’ve quite forgotten my goal. I’m still at the party, and I keep eating and drinking as though there’s no tomorrow. I sit around with family and friends rejoicing that it’s not my house that’s trashed with confetti and cake crumbs. I idly pick cashews out of the mixed nut bowl on the coffee table. I eat one more piece of baklava.

New Year’s Day dawns. I drag myself out of bed to lie on the sofa to watch the Rose Bowl Parade hosted by people entirely too perky. I nibble on some caramel popcorn for breakfast.

In the afternoon I have several invitations to watch bowl games where I cheer, yell and consume chips and dip, shrimp cocktails, mixed nuts, dipped vegetable sticks, buffalo wings, cheese, little hotdog things in barbecue sauce, beef stick slices on crackers, cheesecake, pie and baklava.

Late at night I return home and look at the fridge as I grope for the milk. Oh! My resolution. Hmmm. Technically, I’ve already failed. But I am filled with resolve, primarily because the thought of food is revolting. It’s up to my gills. I give myself a day of slack. It’s a holiday.

The next day I go to work. I pack a lunch of carrot sticks and celery. I add an apple, probably because apples contain sugar. I bring some cheese and crackers along just in case.

After work I arrive at the gym. But there’s a problem. It’s packed with highly resolved people, and it will remain packed for about 10 days. So I opt instead to run a mile. After 30 feet I opt to walk a mile.

Back at home I realize that there’s some leftover ham, potato and cheese casserole and half a mincemeat pie in the refrigerator. There’s also a can of root beer. I behave like Pavlov’s dog.  The casserole and pie are history. The root beer washes it down. Somehow, in the commotion, the sticky note falls off the fridge and slides underneath.

It’s a yearly cycle of failure, but it doesn’t have to be.

I’m adopting Groundhog’s Day as a day of resolution, and I recommend it to one and all. It’s a day that outside of western Pennsylvania has no importance, so I’ll make of it a day that will change my life. There are no Cadbury chocolate caramel groundhogs to tempt me at the supermarket. There are no high-calorie parties on Groundhog’s Day, except I always like to eat sausage — just a couple of patties. I can always steam some broccoli and eat an apple with my meal. It will work well. The gyms in February are practically empty, so I can spend time on the Stairmaster and rowing machine, maybe swim a few laps. I can be a new me. In the evening I‘ll write my annual Groundhog’s Day letter to friends and family.

I’m confident that it will last. I’ll mark it on the calendar. Feb. 2 — my diet and exercise program begins! Let’s see. Feb. 3 — Super Bowl Sunday. Chips and dip, shrimp cocktails, mixed nuts, dipped vegetable sticks, buffalo wings, cheese, little hotdog things in barbecue sauce, beef stick slices on crackers, cheesecake, pie and baklava.

Feb. 4 should be made a national day of resolution.

— Lowell T. Christensen

Lowell T. Christensen is the author of The One-Minute Zillionaire — Achieve Wealth, Fame, and Success in an Instant, Give or Take a Hundred Years. He has kept himself busily occupied as a writer, engineer, rocket scientist, musician, backhoe operator, outdoorsman, chef, rancher and international traveler. His previous books include Coping with Texas and Other Staggering Feets and Beginning Farming and What Makes a Sheep Tick, and he has written magazine articles that feature presidential elections through the theme of Shakespearean plays. He also writes articles for his local newspaper about public education, cheesy television shows, Scout camp misadventures and the county library’s resemblance to a dead rhinoceros. With a degree in chemical engineering, he has worked for DuPont and the University of California.


(Laura Rafaty’s humorous essay originally appeared in the St. Helena Star. Reposted by permission of the author.)

I am reliably informed that serious journalists, as opposed to we humor columnists, are distinguished by a deep knowledge of their subject matter and exhaustive verification of their facts. And while I never let a lack of knowledge stand in the way of my opinions, I try to harvest as many low-hanging facts as 20 minutes spent randomly surfing the Internet can produce.

Enter Wikipedia, a collaborative online encyclopedia apparently founded on the principle that if millions of volunteers toss in information they read elsewhere, and this information is consumed and regurgitated to suggest a consensus, then Truth might accidentally emerge. I always assume that the bulk of any Wikipedia entry was lifted from the term-paper of the grad student who sat next to the contributor 30 years ago, that contributor now being a 50-year-old flabby former barista living with his parents and writing under the pseudonym Cindy4u. Still, Wikipedia’s definitions are much pithier than those of the fuddy-duddy dictionaries and far less likely to include the sort of complexity and nuance that might cloud the subject and cause my articles to exceed their 750-word limit.

To further bolster my journalistic bonafides, I attended (the) annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood. This confluence of world-class wine journalists, bloggers, website floggers, magazine editors, former magazine editors, cookbook authors, book publishers, writing coaches and new media gurus is co-sponsored by Meadowood Napa Valley and the Napa Valley Vintners. The best local events often involve the NVV, which is to wine enthusiasts what Steve Rubell and Studio 54 were to disco queens, although passage past their velvet rope must be based more upon pocketbook and palate than glamour, judging from some of its scruffy-whiskered winemaker members.

Far from highfalutin, our hosts created an atmosphere of conviviality in which even the biggest stars were accessible and forthcoming, if occasionally formidable. Picture baseball camp for wine scribes, except that instead of practice pitching a curve ball with Goose Gossage, you practiced pitching a feature story to Decanter, Wine & Spirits and Uncorked.

Like most events where strangers gather, it resembled high school. The cool people immediately congealed, separating themselves from the rest of us like gourmet balsamic from off-brand olive oil. The usual types emerged: the ultra-driven strivers shoehorning themselves into conversations with editors, the popular darlings flitting about swapping business cards, the true believers burying their noses deep in spit cups to avoid eye contact, and the starstruck who couldn’t believe they were in the same room with both Eric Asimov and the Shafer 2003 Hillside Select Cabernet (and other rarities).

Overall the group was enthusiastic, friendly and kind, and we soon relaxed into an easy camaraderie, remaining hopeful even as symposium founder and nurturer-in-chief Toni Allegra reminded us that the average writer earns $9K per year.

It made me wonder: who becomes a wine writer, anyway? Were they born picky, their first words being: “Mother, I find this chocolate milk smooth on the palate, soft, full-bodied and rich, yet lacking maturity”? Were they finicky in high school, attending keg parties wearing smoking jackets and swilling Champagne?

It appears they were always articulate observers, a tad on the sensitive side. These were not the bullies who shoved you into your locker and stole your lunch money — those guys became venture capitalists and bought wineries. These were good kids, super-smart achievers, with a bit of rebellion at the finish. They edited the yearbook or ran student government, but also drummed in rock bands or smoked pot behind the gym — until they discovered wine.

One writer admitted that she had been in the color guard: “you know … not quite a cheerleader.” And while many had grown up to become respected and widely published, few were able to support themselves through writing alone. Does this mean they are: “you know … not quite wine writers”?

According to Wikipedia: “a semi-professional athlete is one who is paid to play and thus is not an amateur, but for whom sport is not a full-time occupation, generally because the level of pay is too low to make a reasonable living based solely upon that source.” Broadly applying that definition, many of us would be considered semi-pro nowadays. Still the wine writers maintain a high level of professionalism, even if they seem a bit obsessive, fretting about botrytis and blithering on about tannins and acids and bouquets when any normal person would just say “yum.” Some don’t actually drink the wine, yet all are compelled to taste, evaluate and report, even if they can’t be entirely certain anyone is reading.

In a world where everyone’s a critic, there is nothing amateur about them.  And that’s a fact.

— Laura Rafaty

Laura Rafaty writes the bi-weekly humor column “Up the Valley” for the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Register newspapers. Her column won first place from the 2012 National Society of Newspaper Columnists for humor, as well as the 2012 California Newspaper Publishers Association Better Newspapers Award for best column in its division. Laura also is a Tony-nominated theatrical producer, author and attorney.


Ever notice how all the hair products these days are going natural? I thought, “I can do that.” Here are my results:

I washed my hair in okra, and that was one slick hairdo.

I washed my hair in corn, and it was so starchy that it stood straight above my ears.

I washed my hair in carrots, and now I can see better.

I washed my hair with the beautiful lavender flower of the thistle and now it’s all prickly.

I washed my hair with rose petals and now the bees are trying to pollinate me.

I washed my hair with apple juice and it kept the doctor away.

I washed my hair in jalapenos and it was one hot style.

I washed my hair in big bertha pepper, but it didn’t ring my bell.

I washed my hair in oatmeal, and it lowered my cholesterol by 8 points.

I washed my hair with cucumbers and I looked like a wart hog.

I washed my hair with lemons and it puckered.

I washed my hair in zucchini and I couldn’t give it away.

I washed my hair in green beans and it was stringy.

In case you want to try any of these, you have the results from my personal test grounds.

— Kay Gibson describes herself as a wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother — and writer. She has written pieces for numerous publications, including Bird Watcher’s Digest, Guidepost for Kids and Humpty Dumpty. She writes a weekly humor column for two newspapers.

Crush on the Titan

He strides into the gym like the king of beasts — bold, muscular, lion’s mane of thick, silver hair and big, strong hands. He is the fearsome Titan, the dominant male, and all the other men suddenly look like mewing cubs. The sight of him makes me melt on the treadmill. Sweat starts seeping through in dark spots on my already damp tank top. I see him survey his surroundings with a dismissive glance. He looks like a man who has everything under control. He looks like a man who has everything he needs. He looks like a man who gets everything he wants.  And, I don’t even know his name.

I daydream about those large hands kneading my neck, my back and … fade to black. I imagine holding them and looking up while slow dancing because, being a tall woman, size does matter. He takes the masterly lead with no instruction from me, but we move to the rhythm of balanced beats and equal footing. I wonder what it would be like to stare into those sky-lit eyes and have them stare back into mine. He is blessed with sculpted cheekbones and a strong jawline. They’re included every night in my prayers. I cry like a silly school girl, frustrated tears, cursing fate’s loathsome folly. That old rascal lust has found me again after all these years, and I am lost in confusion. Why now, when I’ve finally accepted my aloneness; when menopause is standing at the front door, ready to send my Aunt Rose and Cousin Cramp packing?

I’m comfortable with myself and no longer feel obligated to touch up my hair and makeup. I can spent a Friday night and Saturday morning in pajama pants with Cat curled at my feet. I can eat a banana, write a little poetry, switch on the old movie channel and watch Bogart and Bacall deal with the dicey game of love, all under the protective cover of quilts. I don’t want cupid’s tender trap and foolish romantic fiction.

What’s a grown-up girl to do? The Titan never makes a move. He never gives me the eye.  He never even leans his well-built body towards my treadmill-trekking tush. I try my hardest to look like a leaping gazelle or at the very least, a darting doe. But no amount of running in place is going to make the sexual connection with this almighty man.

Our relationship evolves in my own fevered brain. I feel all the same yearning and burning desire as if we were actually together. I feel all the same crazy, mixed-up emotions I did when I was 17 and in lust with my first boyfriend. Only now I’m middle-aged and been around the track a few times. I feel vulnerable and frightened by these alien impulses.

I’d settle for one night of carnal knowledge with the Gym God. This mere mortal would cast a magical sex spell over him. He’d swiftly sweep me off my size nine feet and onto his mountain of heavenly delight. Heart strings stay intact and feelings of love stay in the closet. Our tryst is playful, uncomplicated because I no longer want to own or be owned.

It’s a funny thing. I thought I had put my mojo on hold a long time ago. In fact, mojo mold was spreading rapidly. Good riddance, I was done with wanting anything from a man. But while treading, I’m salivating up a storm, and filming all sorts of hot takes in my own personal porno flick. It’s only a movie, a fantasy. I crash, head first, down to Earth. I’ve never learned the intricate art of flirting. And, I’m not as liberated as I should be. The ’70s taught women how to get out of the kitchen but not how to ask for what they need in the bedroom.  I’m not one of the new feline class of cats that assertively hunts to satisfy their hunger. These predatory goddesses are made to conquer and topple timid males. I’m shy, short on feminine wiles and oddly off balance in my New Balance shoes.

My fear and fancy are mixed together in a big bowl of mush. I suppose I’ll never know the feel of him next to me — what’s it’s like to have his arm draped across my bare body. I’ll never know the salty scent of the man before he jumps into the shower. (He emerges with hair carelessly tousled, just a hint of aftershave and wrapped in a fresh white towel.) I’ll never know the ache of smoldering passion as he spots me in a crowded room, nodding recognition, then taking my hand and whispering, “You look incredible tonight.”

But what if he did ask? What if he approached me and said, “You and yes?” Would I remember how to respond? It’s been 20 years of marriage and martyrdom, and I still feel like I’m hanging on the cross waiting for my divorce lawyer to pry the nails out.

The no-risk consolation prize is that this man will always be perfectly mine. He will never stray or disappoint. He will never grow tired of me and ask for a newer model. He will never say the wrong thing or give me a bum birthday present. He will hold me in those massive arms and tell me I’m beautiful and funny and smart and that I should never, ever change because I’m just exactly what the gods ordered.

The king is close. I feel his divine warmth as he passes. Pheromones are at a fever pitch, and I nearly slip off the treadmill. Is that a smile on his lips? Is he appraising my doe-like darts and dodges? But no, he has sought out the young blonde lounging on the chest press machine. Taut body, no laugh lines, perfect tendrils spilling down her back, and she is what all the men want. He says, “Hey, honey. How’s my girl?” I bite my tongue, taken aback by this corny line, so unworthy of the God of Mount Elliptical.  She says, “Hey dad. Thanks for coming to get me.”

And, I’m off again, sprinting at the sound of a long shot. Daydreams, it seems, have definite advantages. No gain but no pain either, and a girl can always hope. Hope is a powerful aphrodisiac. Especially on those nights when King Titan is fantasy fodder and Prince Rabbit is just a hair’s breadth away, ready and waiting in the nearby nightstand.

— Wendy Schmidt

Wendy Schmidt, a native of Wisconsin, has written short stories and poetry for the last 10 years.  Her pieces have been published in Strange, Weird and Wonderful, Daily Flash 2012, Three Line Poetry, Tainted Tea, Fear and Trembling,Verse Wisconsin, One Million Stories and Twisted Dreams, Taste Like Pennies Anthology and Haunted Object Anthology.

Double freebie

Award-winning poet, novelist and author of the famed How To Do It Frugally series of books for writers Carolyn Howard-Johnson and award-winning playwright and actor Lance Johnson have been married far longer than the average couple and are still doing things together — in this case, joining with Amazon’s Kindle Select program to give away e-copies of their books, starting Jan. 13.

Ta-da! Two books for your Kindle (or your computer if you don’t have a Kindle) with only a couple clicks. Writers will benefit from The Great First Impression Book Proposal, while international friends might appreciate What Foreigners Need to Know About America From A to Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture People, Government, Business, Language and More.

Anytime during these five days (Jan. 13-17), click here, then click here. Both e-books will come directly to your computer or Kindle.

You can also send the books free to others for  a thoughtful — and fast — gift. Send Lance’s book to an international student, an immigrant — or anyone who cut more high school civics (or English!) classes than they should have. Send Carolyn’s book to fellow writers. Every nonfiction author and even most fiction writers can use it as it is becoming common for publishers to ask for proposals from writers of genre fiction.

“It’s thoughtfulness with the click of a mouse,” she said.

Lance Johnson is an actor with national commercials, plays and movies to his credit. He also has visited more than 90 countries and taught English and American culture abroad. His book has been endorsed by ambassadors to the U.S. and ambassadors from the U.S. to other countries.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson‘s How To Do It Frugally series for writers has won multiple awards. She has studied writing at universities in the Czech Republic, Russia and UK, UCLA and USC. And she has been an instructor for the world-renowned UCLA Extension Writers’ Program for nearly a decade. She served on the EBWW faculty in 2006 and 2008.

You can write!
It says so right on your coffee cup

Have any writers on your holiday list?

The University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop is offering a “You Can Write!” coffee mug and an Erma T-shirt exclusively through the University of Dayton Bookstore.

All proceeds benefit the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop endowment fund. The popular workshop draws more than 350 writers from around the nation to campus every other spring.

The late humorist Erma Bombeck, who graduated from the University of Dayton in 1949, gave the world many witty, memorable lines. Some of her most inspirational words are featured on the back of a new T-shirt: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.'”

The coffee cup features three words of encouragement from a University of Dayton English professor that Bombeck said changed her life: You Can Write!

The shirt sells for $16.99. The mug, which will be available for shipping Dec. 19, is $9.99.

Over the years, the workshop has attracted as speakers such household names as Dave Barry, Phil Donahue, Art Buchwald, Nancy Cartwright, Don Novello, Garrison Keillor and Gail Collins, but the personal involvement of Erma Bombeck’s family makes the event at her alma mater memorable and sets it apart from the myriad other writers’ workshops offered across the country.

The next workshop is slated for April 10-12, 2014.

There’s nothing to fear in fear itself

Most people think I’m normal. I’m not. Usually, I’m in overdrive on the nervous wreck meter, such as when I recently held a book signing at a bookshop.

I’m reliving the panic in my dreams. This has resulted in a severe sleep disorder … for my husband.

“Bob,” I screamed, as I pounded on his head last night while he was asleep. “I’m having a nightmare.” Our startled dog jumped on the bed and tore the quilt to death.

The cats joined the terror party by leaping onto Bob’s face and yowling at higher notes than Mariah Carey could reach if she smashed her thumb with a sledge hammer. “Sweetheart,” I whispered. “Are you awake?”

“Saralee, I’m begging you. Please don’t tell me another nightmare.”

“I was at my signing when a woman came over dressed like a zombie. She hissed, ‘You’re a rotten writer. Everybody hates your book. And you put on 30 pounds.’ Bob! It wasn’t a costume. It was my mother!”

“Oh no!” He covered his ears.

Most of us have anxiety. Maybe it’s a dread of dentist appointments, airplanes, spiders or social situations. Oh, there are a billion examples. Although I was a psychotherapist for 22 years, I’ve learned more about anxiety from my own shtick.

Struggling to cover up nervousness actually makes it worse. How do we tame it? By not trying to hide it or stop it. Saying, “I’m so nervous that my hands are shaking,” or, “My neck is beet red,” or commenting on whatever our outward signs of anxiety are, will take away its power.

If there are people who think less of me for being scared, that’s their shortcoming.

My sister-in-law was at my signing. She lives far away from me and never reads my columns, so she won’t see this. When she does her superior know-it-all thing, I respond like the mature wise woman I’m known to be: I make faces behind her back.

Two seconds before entering the bookstore, she said, “Are you nervous?”


The sabotage began. “What’s wrong with you? You shouldn’t be nervous.”

“Well, I’m excited too.”

“You should be.”

I stomped my feet. “I just said I am!”

Bob gave me a knowing look that meant, “You’re never going to win. Give it up.” Naturally he was right.

While signing books, my hands trembled. While connecting with readers whose words touched my heart deeply, my head shook. While thanking so many wonderful souls for coming to meet me, well, I stuttered through tears.

Did it matter that I was nervous? Of course not.

Three things mattered:

1. The fact that I had a wondrous time in spite of being scared.

2. The beautiful words I heard from readers along with the overwhelming love I received.

3. And that my sister-in-law saw every single bit of it.

— Saralee Perel

Saralee Perel is an award-winning nationally syndicated columnist and the author of Cracked Nuts & Sentimental Journeys: Stories From a Life Out of Balance. She welcomes e-mails at

Ahoy, matey!
Pirate parenting can ease stress of moving

(Nancy LaFever’s humorous interview with Tim Bete, author of Guide to Pirate Parenting and former director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, originally appeared on mymove.comPhotography courtesy of iStockphoto/Thinkstock and Reposted by permission.)

Moving your household is challenging, and such a big change is especially tough on kids. Leaving their friends and starting over in the new home will be an adjustment. So how do you get your kids in the spirit of the move and motivate them to pack up their rooms while also keeping your cool? It’s somewhat unorthodox and may be unfamiliar to you, but one option is incorporating the techniques of Pirate Parenting.

Tim Bete is the author of Guide to Pirate Parenting (you can download the free electronic version or purchase the paperback here.) In his book, Tim and pirate contributor Cap’n Billy MacDougall outline the benefits of raising your kids to be pirates. More than a cool fad, pirating can be an exciting way of life and kids readily take to it. Any lifestyle that eliminates regular bathing and encourages the use of colorful language is an instant hit.

Common pirate activities Tim suggests include turning the minivan into a pirate schooner, packing gunpowder for ye cannons and, of course, plundering. My Move asked Tim how he would use pirate parenting techniques when moving and settling into the new home and neighborhood.

My Move: If a parent has no previous pirate parenting experience, how would you suggest they get up to speed for the move? Is there an accelerated program?

Tim: “The accelerated program doubles the rations of grog each hour until you forget that you decided to move. What happens after you’ve consumed that much grog is anyone’s guess. Drinking while packing is fun, but it often makes it difficult to find things when you reach your destination. Make sure to mark boxes and don’t give into the temptation to get a tattoo of a shark or hula dancer.”

My Move: Let’s say you’ve used the Pirate Parenting Method since your kids were small, but have been a little lax lately. They’ve developed some undesirable landlubber habits. How might you get them back to prime pirate shape for the upcoming move?

Tim: “A night in the brig works wonders, but most parents don’t have a brig. But you do have packing boxes and tape. Quickly fashion a temporary brig out of the boxes and tape. While your kids are doing their time, feed them only hardtack and water. If you’re out of hardtack, feel free to substitute Pop Tarts.”

My Move: One of your pirates hasn’t even started to pack up his room. How do you discipline the little “powder monkey?” Is walking the plank still a viable parenting option?

Tim: “You’ve probably already packed the plank, so walking it won’t be an option. Swabbing the deck is an appropriate punishment. If you don’t have a deck, have your powder monkey scrub the driveway using a toothbrush.”

My Move: Is it ever acceptable for your kids to call the moving men “scurvy dogs?”

Tim: “That’s an awfully kind term for a pirate to use. But if your kids like the moving men, it’s fine.”

My Move: Your Pirate Parenting mentor Cap’n Billy advises a full immersion pirate program for kids including pirate attire with accessories like the standard eye patch. Keeping true to the pirate code, but wanting your kids to fit into the new neighborhood, what would you suggest?

Tim: “First, before you move, make sure to visit your neighbors and retrieve any items they’ve borrowed from you. It’s best to wait until they’re not home. While you’re there, “borrow” any items you think would be useful in your new home. Empty their liquor cabinet, too. The best way to greet your new neighbors is with cannon fire.”

Adapting to Pirate Life

If you decide to embrace Bete’s pirate parenting techniques, you’ll be using a new language. Remember, “Matey” replaces “Mom” or “Dad,” but isn’t disrespectful. Your child may now refer to the top bunk as the “crow’s nest.” Use this lingo to get him to pack his Xbox by calling it “ye treasure chest of gold doubloons.” Just be prepared to put your foot down when he asks to get a parrot after you move.

— Nancy LaFever

Nancy LaFever is a contributor to and pens the blog, Single People’s Grocery Lists. As a freelance writer, she has published more than 150 magazine articles and hundreds of blog posts on topics including fine crafts, business, women’s issues, travel, humor and popular culture.

Reflections of Erma