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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.

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.

Reflections of Erma