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

Erma Bombeck Wrighters' Workshop Banner

Crisis conspiracy in a dim-lit restaurant

So then…the server drops off our drinks and hands us the most impossibly long menus I’ve ever seen. Each menu is one extremely tall sheet made of beautiful parchment paper and printed with an elaborate typestyle, bordering on calligraphy.

I’m only 26, so my eyesight is still good – but even I’m having trouble reading the ornamental curlicues on the script, especially since this swanky Manhattan restaurant is darkly romantic — lit mostly with candles.

My date excuses himself to the men’s room, so I sneak a quick glance over to the large mirror in the bar. I’ve dressed up for our date and I must say, I’m looking pretty damn good. This sentiment seems to be shared by the two guys talking at the bar since they both look in my direction and smile.

I smile back demurely, but quickly return my attention back to the nearly illegible menu — after all, I’m already on a date. I hunch over the menu, leaning closer and closer, trying to read the ornate descriptions of Italian dishes in this dim lighting.

In my peripheral vision, I see the two guys at the bar staring at me. Inside, I’m thinking, Really guys — cool your jets. Didn’t you see I’m with someone?

Now they’re smiling and motioning to me and pointing. Are they asking me over for a drink? Oh, stop, I think. Really – I simply couldn’t! I’m blushing from all the attention.

I shoot a mock scolding look at them and return to my menu – which is on fire.

Yes, on fire.

I’ve leaned so close to the table’s candle, trying to read the damn thing, I have now set it on fire!

The flames are flying – the blaze burning briskly to the bottom of the parchment — ashes fall to the table – everyone whips around to see the spectacle — but I’m afraid to drop it and start a bigger fire — so I just hold it, in shock.

The server swoops over, grabs the bottom of the menu and dunks it into the wine bucket of the table next to me. Instantly a bus boy races over and removes the glasses, silverware, candle and tablecloth. He whips out a fresh white linen tablecloth, resets the table, returns the drinks and hustles away. Meanwhile the server swiftly replaces the wine bucket of the table next to me – then zips back to delicately place a fresh new menu in my hand.

I swear to you, this all takes 60 seconds. They move with such effortless grace and quick thinking; I can only imagine that this sort of thing must happen frequently at this dark-romantic-illegible-menu restaurant.

No sooner does the server sail away then my date rounds the corner and rejoins me at the table. He is none the wiser. All evidence of my near-calamity has been eradicated. I look exactly as he left me – except my heart is hammering wildly.

I shoot a look of relief at my would-be admirers at the bar, who I suppose were really would-be rescuers all along. They smile and give me a thumbs up.

The other diners who were momentarily alarmed all return to their dinners.

When the server gently places the bread basket on the table and winks at me, I realize that the entire restaurant has unanimously decided to join a conspiracy of silence so my date never learns that I almost burnt the place down while he was taking a piss.

But of COURSE I tell him – because how could I not!? Oh, the drama! Lives were almost lost while I tried to distinguish between the tagliatelle and the tortellini!

Darcy Perdu

 Darcy Perdu shares her bodacious blunders, hilarious humiliations and amusing adventures — and asks you to do the same on her blog. Her real-life stories of running a business, wrangling two kids, traveling hither and yon, and navigating relationships will remind you of your own funny experiences — so come share them and read others.  You’ll laugh; you’ll gasp; you’ll chuckle — you might even snort!

The gift of inspiration

Erma Bombeck gave us so many witty, memorable lines.

“Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving.” “In two decades I’ve lost a total of 789 pounds. I should be hanging from a charm bracelet.”

She made us laugh, but she also inspired us.

We’re featuring some of Erma’s most inspirational words on the back of a new EBWW 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 shirt is available exclusively through the University of Dayton Bookstore. Within two weeks, we’ll also offer a “You Can Write!” coffee mug.

All proceeds benefit the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop endowment fund that helps support one of the best workshops for writers anywhere.

Give yourself the gift of inspiration.  These items make great gifts for family and friends, too.

Share the Erma spirit!

(If you’d like to make a gift to the workshop, click here and designate Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in the box).

Stalked by zombies

CVS just might stand for Customers are Very Scary.  I offer you proof with this frightening but true story that happened at my local CVS.  (Note:  I have changed the name of the girl in this story, at least I think I changed it.  This was not to protect her privacy, but because I couldn’t remember her name by the time I got home.)

Once upon a time there was a little girl of seven.  She was a happy, friendly child who roamed the aisles of the store alone without a care.  Or so it seemed.

She approached me and asked me my name.  “Bonnie,” I said.  “What’s your name?”

“Melissa.”

“Hi, Melissa.  How are you?”

“I’m fine except a scary thing is following me around the store,” she replied.

I saw a boy walking towards us.  He resembled her so strongly that he had to be her brother.  “Do you mean him?  He does look a little scary.”

“No, he’s my brother. He’s eight,” she replied and pointed to a zombie Halloween decoration, which was in fact scarier looking than her brother. “That. That’s following me.”

I quickly learned a lot about seven-year-old Melissa.  She loves Halloween and is going to be a fairy when she goes trick or treating. Her brother joined us.  She tried to convince him that a spooky creature was following her, but he was uninterested.  Soon they were totally absorbed in the many choices of candy on display.

I then became a ghost to Melissa, who diverted her attention fully to the candy.  At this point I seized the moment and sneaked one of the zombies from where it was perched on a shelf, placed it behind Melissa and her brother and ran down the aisle to hide.  She turned around and jumped and said to her brother, “See, it’s following me.”

They headed farther down the aisle and I was able to use my powers of stealth and move Mr. Zombie right down to the spot where they were about to round a corner.  She gave a little scream and again insisted to her brother that she was being followed.  At that point I walked up and she recounted the entire story to me.

I got into the story with her and asked lots of questions.  She was obviously having a great time.  I was able to add zombies to her path about four times before I had to make my purchase and return to the land of the living.  At the check-out I came across the kids again, this time with their mother.  Melissa was going on and on to the cashier about how zombies had been following her around the store.  Then she looked at me and said, “You wouldn’t have moved them around, would you?”

“Now why would I do that?” I replied with a wink.

Hands down, this was the best time I ever had in CVS.  The Very Scary part does concern me, though.  I was a harmless stranger who really enjoys playing with kids on their level.  I’m glad I’m the one she befriended as it scares me to death to think about this little girl and her brother unsupervised for so long in the store.  I hope this serves as a gentle reminder to people to keep an eye on their kids and grandkids.

It also reminds me of the story of my daughter trying to impress on her kids not to be taken in by a stranger.  You want your kids to be friendly, but they need to keep their distance.  Every time she asked her three-year old if he would go with a stranger who offered him candy, his answer was the same.  “Yes!  I like candy.”  It’s a hard lesson.

Even at my age if you offer me peanut M&Ms, I still will be tempted to go with you.  I probably won’t, but I’ll be tempted.

— Bonnie Anderson

Bonnie Anderson blogs at Life on the Lighter Side: Viewed With a Dash of Humor and Sprinkled With Sarcasm. She lives in Central Florida.

Home

(An excerpt from Bruce B. Smith’s newly published book, For What It’s Worth…Love, Dad: Things I’d always meant to tell you, if only we’d had the time. Posted by permission of the author.)

The house sold a week before Christmas, and our motley crew had piled into a car stuffed with pillows, blankets, a potty chair, and a nasty-tempered hamster. We were driving from California to Connecticut across the southernmost route along I-10 to I-95, a trip which would take us through several states over 10 very cramped days. Richard was not quite 3-years-old, and while initially excited about the trip, he began to lose enthusiasm when he realized this was not our typical afternoon drive. And as each mile passed, he grew even more miserable.

By day three of our journey a few things were becoming painfully obvious.

First rule of travel:

Rodents are not acceptable traveling companions.

That damned hamster was not only bad-tempered; he was a carnivorous little beast with a voracious appetite.

And his food of choice was Jennifer’s fingers.

What had been Jen’s adored pet was now for her a thing of terror, a blood-lusting little were-hamster. I spotted the resemblance to Lon Chaney immediately.

Second rule of travel:

Potty chairs are not designed for mobile use.

As I repeatedly pointed out at the time, they’re not called port-a-potties for a reason. Just try balancing the business end of a toddler on one of those pedestals at 55 miles per hour.

It was Christmas Eve in Terrell, Texas, when we discovered the third rule of travel.

Third rule of travel:

Never end up in Terrell, Texas, on Christmas Eve.

I’m sure the Terrellians love it there. After all, they choose to live there. But for a carload of road-weary out-of-towners…it’s best to keep driving.

We rolled into Terrell about dinner time to discover that the only eating establishment still open on this holiest of holy nights was the local convenience store. For our holiday fare, this shabby little predecessor to a 7-11 store offered up a dubious selection of cheap bologna and plasticized tiles of something called American cheese food. Any reasonable resemblance to actual food had been lost somewhere. These we laced with some soon-to-be outdated mustard on plain white bread and washed the whole thing down with canned sodas.

By then Richard had finally had enough. Tired, cramped and clinging precariously to that roller-coastering potty chair, he began to wail. And in a tear-stained voice, cried, “I…wanna…go…hooooooooome!”

How could we explain to him that (for now at least), home was a 1981 Buick rolling along on Interstate 10? The home we had lived in since before he was born was now someone else’s. Our new home was still several days and thousands of miles away, and still occupied by the soon-to-be previous owners. We would be staying with his mother’s aunt and her obnoxious little dog for the next several weeks until the closing of the sale. Though the dog never actually bit anyone, the whole were-hamster experience had made me overly cautious.

Our answer (dripping with parental guilt and false bravado) was a very pitiful and unsatisfactory “We’re going to our new home!” Because at 3-years-old, Rich, you wouldn’t have understood the answer I’m giving you now…

My son, it doesn’t matter if you live in a castle, a condo or a cardboard box.

Wherever you have family is home.

Your true home is made of the bricks of memories, and its foundation is cemented with the trust that you have in one another. Your true home is roofed by love that protects you when despair rains down. Home keeps you safe when the troubles of the world weigh heavy upon your shoulders.

And while buildings may get old and weaken, and possessions fade and lose their appeal, if you treasure the love of your family, your home will just keep getting stronger. At the end of your journey, it’s the smiles of your family that say “Welcome Home.”

That’s what I’d tell you, if you were to ask me now…

But then I look at the young man you’ve become, and I think, “He already knows.”

— Bruce B. Smith

Bruce B. Smith is a father of three children and lives in Connecticut with his wife of 35 years. He travels extensively, providing disaster recovery services to states and municipalities that have been ravaged by hurricanes and other natural disasters. Bruce is an accomplished photographer and is currently working on his next book.

The importance of doggy bags

(Reposted by permission of the author. This humorous essay first appeared in the The Huffington Post on Oct. 26, 2012.)

Warning: This post is far from appetizing, but it has definite curb appeal.

A few days ago, one of my Facebook posts exploded with comments. It set a new record that I never saw coming. I’ve posted funnier and more insightful material. I’ve written and chatted with fascinating celebrities. But it wasn’t celebrity scoop, it was a dog walker’s failure to scoop that caused this Facebook stir.

Here is the post: “This has been an amazing day capped off by my successful undercover sting operation to identify the dog owner who visits my yard regularly and apparently has an aversion to plastic bags. Now adding ‘detective,’ ‘forensic psychologist’ and ‘lecturer’ to my resumé.”

I must confess that after months of cleaning up lawn deposits in the exact same spot, I was obsessed with tracking down the culprit and thrilled to catch him and his dog red-handed, and red-faced. Interestingly, violators have only two responses. The first — “This is the only time it’s ever happened.” And the second — “This is the only time I’ve ever forgotten a bag.” Uh huh.

As a psychologist, I was fascinated by a) the gratification I felt from pulling off a successful sting operation and b) my friends’ enthusiastic support, outrage and suggestions. Why was that? And why did so many people feel the need to weigh in? Here’s my analysis…

1. Any topic that includes dogs is a winning topic.

2. Everyone’s been a victim of bad manners. And when you’ve been playing by the rules for years, it’s annoying to watch others break them.

3. People value their property and resent those who treat it like a litter box, and them like a clean-up crew.

4. A violator’s sense of entitlement and scramble for excuses frustrates the victim. There’s rarely an apology or a pick-up, and that just fuels the fire.

5. People love to give suggestions on how to handle inconsiderate people. This is because a) they love being creative and b) you’re the one who’d suffer the backlash from their solutions.

Some might think that this is a silly topic. Of course people should focus on more important things than weighing in on dog deposits, but this fervor reflects people’s passion for common courtesy and respect.

The dialogue made more than a few chuckle because, let’s face it, poop happens. Most of us just don’t want to step in it.

— Nancy Berk, Ph.D.

Nancy Berk is a clinical psychologist, author of College Bound and Gagged and a blogger for The Huffington Post, USA Today College, MORE magazine and TravelingMom.com. A columnist, podcast host (“Whine at 9,” “College Mom Minute”) and speaker, Nancy has used her comedic touch on stage in places like TEDx and 30 Rock. She served on the 2012 EBWW faculty.

Comedy writing 101

(This is an excerpt from the preface of Brad Ashton’s book, The Job of a Laughtime: The Complete Comedy Writer. The book offers “nine simple lessons on creating your own comedy from gags to sitcoms.” Reprinted by permission of the author.)

Do you ever wake up in the morning feeling you want to do some crazy things, like phoning the maternity hospital and asking if they deliver? Or buying a roasting turkey and taking it to a taxidermist to be stuffed? Or taking up a collection to buy toupees for bald eagles?

If you do, you have the makings of a good comedy writer.

You will be the kind of person asking rhetorical questions like has Old McDonald ever been cautioned for keeping a noisy farm? Is it a plastic surgeon’s job to pick your nose for you? Would you expect something in mint condition to have a hole in it? Are Sunday drivers actually Friday drivers still looking for a place to park? Is a rare coin something you have left over after paying your taxes?

You’ll begin to wonder whether Jewish kids have piggy banks, or whether Snow White had an eighth dwarf who was gay and named “Sweetie.” Or when a policeman arrests a mime artist, does he tell him he has the right to remain silent?

Doctors tell us laughter is the best medicine. But you won’t need seven years at medical school to qualify as a dispenser of that medicine. Anyone can create laughter. It’s not a gift or talent you have to be born with. It can be taught.

But even if you’ve no inclination to be a humorous scribe, creating comedy provides other wonderful benefits. Most women, for instance, will tell you that the thing they found most attractive in a man was his sense of humor. “He made me laugh a lot.”

Many of us have been prevailed upon to “Say a few words…” at a family or social gathering. If you can make those few words funny, you will be remembered and head the ever-popular guest list.

Comedy is even appropriate at funerals. I remember attending Jimmy Jewel’s cremation where fellow comedian Alfred Marks’ eulogy included, “I spent six months co-starring with Jimmy in The Sunshine Boys. He was such a hypochondriac that he even put in his will that he had to be buried next to a doctor.” It got a huge laugh and helped make a mournful occasion into a merry one.

I am frequently asked what I think of the modern day stand-up comedians. My usual retort is that I try not to think of them. Too many rely on gags and routines about subjects that used to be banned on television, and I think still ought to be. Humor based on drugs, overt sex and other bodily functions have their rightful place in nightclubs and stag (parties) where  the audience expect that sort of thing. But when it’s served up on TV, it usually scores low in the ratings because it is too embarrassing for families to watch together. I have, therefore, in (my) book tended to veer away from that vein of humor and concentrate solely on the kind of comedy which I think is much more acceptable to a mass audience and can be written and performed without offense.

I loved writing this book and passing on the lessons I’ve learned over half a century of keeping comedians from being speechless.

— Brad Ashton

Brad Ashton has written more than 1,000 TV and radio shows during his half-century career as a comedy writer. He’s also the author of How to Write Comedy.

Prescription for laughter

Internationally recognized speaker, author and stress management and humor consultant Loretta LaRoche will present “Life Is Short, Wear Your Party Pants” as the morning keynote speaker at the 12th Annual Speaking of Women’s Health Conference in Dayton, Ohio.

The conference will be held at the Dayton Convention Center 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3. Tickets are $35.  Conference and ticket information are available online or contact Emily Milkis at 937-220-1701 or emilkis@thinktv.org.

The hysterically funny LaRoche has twice keynoted the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, the last time in 2010.

Using humor to reframe a stressful situation, LaRoche captures a new perspective on the difficult parts of life.  Her teaching style, credibility and incontestable humor are integral parts to her compelling presence.  Organizations worldwide use Loretta’s prescription for laughter to manage stress in the workplace and improve morale.  Her energetic conferences and keynotes serve to improve learning skills and leave her audiences in an enthusiastic frame of mind.

The Speaking of Women’s Health Conference was developed to help women to make informed decisions about health, well-being and personal safety for themselves and their families. This year’s conference, “Share Good Health,” includes health screenings, exhibits, 19 breakout sessions, lunch and a gift bag — making for a full day of pampering, camaraderie and education.

The Speaking of Women’s Health Conference is hosted by ThinkTV with supporting sponsorship from Premier Health Partners and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, with featured sponsorship from CareSource Foundation. Additional sponsorship is appreciated from DP&L, Premier Health Specialists, Freund, Freeze and Arnold, and LifeLine Screenings.

ThinkTV is the most widely used non-profit educational, cultural and informational service in southwestern Ohio.

Midlife, mood swings and mood rings

Anyone who watched the ’80s chick flick “Steel Magnolias”  is familiar with Shirley MacLain’s character “Weezer” when she wanders into Dolly Parton’s beauty salon, armed with a bag of tomatoes and a scowl that would make Scrooge look like Glinda the Good Witch. When Sally Field’s character calls her on it, MacLaine, belching after a long swig of coke, blurts:  “I’m fine! I’m an old Southern woman! We’re supposed to grow vegetables in the dirt and wear funny hats. Nothing’s wrong with me, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for the past 30 years!”

Serving as a reminder of my recent mood swings, my kids downloaded this scene and simultaneously send it to my Iphone whenever they think I’m “over the edge.”   “I’d rather be over the edge than over the hill!” I yell in response to no one in particular, while folding my 5’9” daughter’s skinny jeans and thongs, placing them next to my elastic waist denim shorts and granny underwear. (I’m having a “fat month” as I write this; next month I plan on tossing anything that has elastic in my closet even if I have to walk around unable to breathe.)

While MacLaine’s character was probably past menopause and my friends and I are just on its cusp, her line defines what I call “the mood swing years.” Sounds like a ’70s Woodstock throwback term, right?  In fact, the whole hippie theme has made a comeback, although I think the politically correct term now is “Boho.” Case in point: For Mother’s Day this year my kids bought me a mood ring, but not because it’s fashion-forward, even though the look is called retro, which seems like an oxymoron to me. They got it to monitor my pre-menopausal mood swings. They know that blue or green indicates it’s ok to ask me for money or the keys to the car, and orange or red means to stay overnight at their friend’s house.

The “mood swing years,” somewhere between the ages of 40 and 50, our sense of wisdom, self confidence and self worth rises, while everything else droops, falls, shrinks and sags. At 5 foot, I can’t afford to shrink even a quarter of an inch. To help combat it, I’ve taken to yoga and Pilates, hoping that perhaps standing on my head and elongating my spine preserves what little height I do have, while simultaneously getting rid of the “muffin top” that has resulted from indulging in too many trips to the bakery and soft pretzel factory.  The only good thing about that is my fingers swell from the salt and I can’t wear the mood ring, so my husband and kids never know whether their dinner will be Chinese takeout eaten directly from the carton with chopsticks, or a four-course gourmet dinner served on my grandmother’s china.

Getting older has its perks. Metaphorically speaking, we’re more comfortable in our own skin. (From a physical standpoint, laser therapy is the save-all). We’re less concerned about what other people think and more concerned about how we keep our own minds forward-thinking. Google has become the new senior wonder tool.  By mastering the art of manipulating this search engine, we give the impression we’re keeping up and delude ourselves and others into thinking no one considers us “over the hill.”

Although truth be told, by the time we think we know all there is to know, senility sets in and we forget it all anyway.

—Susan Haas Bates

Pennsylvania writer Susan Haas Bates describes herself as a writer, mom and wife in midlife mayhem.

Reflections of Erma