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My new BFF

Suzanne Braun Levine(©Copyright 2014 Open Road Integrated Media. “My New BFF,” was originally published as a guest blog for the Open Road Media Project with Gloria Steinem, “Reading Our Way to the Revolution.”)

I have always been curious about Margaret Fuller. I knew only enough to think of her as the hippie of 19th-century feminists.

I picked up Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall, eager to get to the hippie part — Brook Farm, the commune she founded in the 1820s with her Transcendentalist friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. That turned out to be a minor moment in the rich and radical life of this journalist, activist, intellectual and social rebel, who was dubbed a “fore-sayer” because of her visionary and mind-blowing ideas.

Reading this lively biography was like discovering a long lost girlfriend. If we sat down over a cup of coffee, I know we would get right down to the kind of wide-ranging and irreverent conversation that I look for in a new friend. In her most influential book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, for example, she addressed a circumstance any woman of any era would recognize. Why, she wondered, do women fall for bad men? “The preference often shown by women for bad men arises,” she wrote, “from a confused idea that they are bold and adventurous, acquainted with regions which women are forbidden to explore.”

She understood that she was too smart for her own good and too outspoken for a woman of her times — “a mind that insisted on utterance” — but was unapologetic about it, and bore the consequences. She had passionate intellectual relationships with like-minded men — including Emerson, who shared endless details about his unhappy marriage, but never considered Margaret more than a pal. She formed what were consciousness-raising groups — called Conversations — among the educated women in her Boston circle. Not surprisingly to my generation of feminists, when the men insisted on being included — to raise the level of discussion — the meetings lost energy.

She became a crusading columnist, a first, and was sent to Rome by the pioneering newspaper editor Horace Greely to cover the revolutions of 1848. As her assignment became more bloody and dangerous, she, in the Hemingway tradition of (male) war correspondents to come, fell in love — with an impoverished and uneducated young Italian marchese. When she became pregnant, she didn’t abandon her post and gave birth to their child in the midst of a bombing raid.

Knowing she had broken every rule in the book, she hesitated to return to America, and when she finally decided to brave the censure and sail for home with her family, all three of them were drowned in a shipwreck off Fire Island in 1850. She was only 40. Yet, as Marshall points out, she had already found heaven — a life “empowering [her] to incessant acts of vigorous beauty.”

— Suzanne Braun Levine

Suzanne Braun Levine is a writer, editor and nationally recognized authority on women, families and media. She was the first editor of Ms. magazine (1972-1988), and the first woman editor of the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review. She reports on the ongoing changes in women’s lives in her books, on television, radio, at lectures and on her website. She’s the author of four books, including You Gotta Have Girlfriends — A Post-Fifty Posse Is Good For Your HealthIn 2014, she served on the EBWW faculty.

The ladies who yawn

Con ChapmanI have been a member of the male sex my entire life, actually longer, since my masculinity — such as it is — was determined when I first acquired one of those dust bunny-like creatures, the Y chromosome, nine months before I was born.

Despite my lack of a disinterested point of view, I will readily admit that men are the grosser sex.  We don’t smell as good as women, and we tend to scratch ourselves in places where we shouldn’t — even on national TV, in the case of professional athletes. With the exception of maybe Cary Grant, whose gentlemanly manner was as close to perfection as any man ever achieved, it’s hard to understand what women see in men at all.

The exception to this rule — I won’t say it proves it — is yawning. Perhaps because men have so many other faults to make up for, they seem to realize that when they open their mouths involuntarily to public view the polite thing to do is to cover them.  That’s what I was taught by my mother, and apparently somebody told other men — except for the out-and-out louts — to do the same.

I’ve come to believe that there’s a secret women’s handbook of manners floating around somewhere that says “Because we are the more delicate sex, and leave the room when we feel a giant taco burp coming up, we are allowed to yawn uncovered for great lengths of time in public. This is our ‘free space,’ like the middle square in Bingo. Have fun with it!”

It has taken me a long time to formulate my feelings on this point, but after years of control-group testing, surreptitious observation and late-night reveries fueled by red wine, my research points to one inescapable conclusion: women are less likely than men to cover their mouths when they yawn.

This week was something of a tipping point.  I have a walk of several hundred yards from my office to the train station, across a plaza where one can have an unobstructed view of a person walking in the opposite direction for a minute or more.  Yesterday I saw a woman emerge from the subway, start to yawn, and maintain a full, open-mouth position for a count of 14.6 seconds.  This is the etiquette counterpart to football’s “good hang-time,” the ability of a punter to kick a ball high in the air, giving his special team precious extra seconds to run downfield and pummel a speedy kick returner like a pinata at an 8-year-old’s birthday party.

Last week, as I was riding the MBTA’s Green Line, I sat opposite an attractive young woman and her boyfriend/fiance/husband. They were on their way to the airport, apparently at the end of a vacation, looking at the pictures they had taken around Boston. The woman began to yawn at the Boylston Street stop and — I swear — didn’t stop or cover her mouth until the conductor pulled into Park Street, several blocks away.  Park Street and Boylston Stations are the nation’s two oldest subway stations, built at the end of the 19th century when ladies who felt a belch coming on were sequestered in an upstairs bedroom or sent to the seashore until it had passed out of their system.

One of the great breakthroughs of quantum physics, Werner Heisenberg’s “Uncertainly Principle,” teaches us that the act of observation modifies the thing observed, so that absolutely precise measurements are impossible. I suppose it could be the case that women deliberately extend their yawns when they see men watching them, thinking, “Maybe if I show that creep my molars long enough, he’ll stop staring at me.”

The other possibility — actually, it’s more like a certainty — is that the woman you see yawning her head off in public today was kept up the night before by a man snoring like a sawmill at the mouth of roaring river.

That’s our free space, and if you don’t like it, you can take your bingo card and go sleep on the couch.

— Con Chapman

Con Chapman is a Boston-area writer whose works include The Year of the Gerbil, a history of the 1978 Yankees-Red Sox pennant race, 10 published plays and two novels, Making Partner and CannaCorn (Joshua Tree Publishing). His articles and humor have appeared in magazines and newspapers including The Atlantic Monthly, The Boston Globe and The Christian Science Monitor.

A song in my head, a worm in my ear

Ann_GreenJingle Bell, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way!… 

Sorry. I know the season is over, but that song is lodged in my brain. No doubt you’ve had that experience, when a song pops into your head and won’t go away. Scientists who study such things call these malevolent melodies “earworms.”  In other words, the songs worm their way into your mind. And thanks for that visual, professors. 

“Fundamentally, an earworm is your brain singing,” says British researcher Dr. Victoria Williamson in an interview in Science Friday. Dr. Williamson is an authority on how music affects our minds and behavior. The good doctor asserts that most earworms are either pleasant or neutral and that only 30 percent are annoying. I would dispute those findings. Few of them are pleasant, and 90 percent are irritating. She also claims that earworms tend to last eight seconds. You could have fooled me.

Almost everyone — more than 90 percent of us — has earworms at least once a week. A lucky 25 percent have them more than once a day. That would include me. 

A month ago my brain was bursting with “Jingle Bells” and “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas.”  I don’t happen to celebrate Christmas, but with the muzak tracks in every store, restaurant and public space it was hard not to wind up with seasonal songs playing between my ears. There are some very pleasant Christmas songs. In fact, I’m partial to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Somehow none of the good ones made their way into the cranial wormhole.

I asked my hairdresser and the salesman in the Verizon store if the in-house soundtracks ever got to them. My hairdresser rolled her eyes and sighed. The Verizon guy said, “You have no idea.”

Earworm experts don’t completely understand what triggers them, and it’s hard to track therm. (Unless the early bird catches the earworm.) Study subjects keep diaries; that must be fun. Among the songs which tend to enable earworm larvae are “What Does the Fox Say?” and “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

These intrepid scientists are also looking into the function of a person’s mood in creating earworms. This could lead to a chicken-or-egg conundrum: does the earworm cause a bad mood or does a bad mood lead to an earworm?

The military has caught on to this phenomenon, sometimes employing what has been called music torture. This is the tactic of subjecting prisoners to loud or non-stop music to get them to give up important information. After the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989, the country’s dictator, Manuel Noriega, took refuge in the Vatican embassy. Troops surrounded the embassy and opened aural fire, bludgeoning his brain with hits including, naturally, Van Halen’s “Panama.”

Noriega surrendered within a week. It has been reported that Iraqi prisoners of war were subjected to the theme songs from “Sesame Street” and “Barney.” Some things truly are beyond the pale. The Geneva Convention did not anticipate a purple dinosaur.

Once we’re infected, though, there are ways to deworm our brains. Williamson says the best method is to distract yourself with other music or conversation. Other suggestions, of which I am skeptical, are to listen to the earworm repeatedly or listen to the entire song.

The Science Friday article includes a playlist of 149 songs identified by Facebook and Twitter users as most likely to induce earworms. I was afraid to read the list, lest they all congregate in my gray matter.

It seems that there isn’t much we can do to prevent ear worms, although being judicious in what we listen to might be just the thing to prevent us from opening a can of earworms.

— Ann Green

Ann Green is a freelance writer, editor, PR consultant and tutor.

Seeking a few rock stars

Erma typewriterWe’re seeking top-notch faculty and session ideas for the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

Deadline for proposals is April 1, 2015, with prospective faculty notified by June 1 if their sessions have been selected. To submit a proposal, click on Call For Faculty Proposals, fill out the form and email it to

The vast majority of writers surveyed after the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop told us they loved it, but a number said they’d appreciate more writing exercises in workshops and greater focus on the craft of writing. Some recommended tracks for beginners and more established writers. Others requested tips on how to navigate the myriad ways available to publish and market your writing today.

Among the hundreds of helpful write-in survey comments: “I’d love to hear more about the mechanics of the writing — the butt-in-chair, deadline-aware, professional approach,” one writer said.

Attendees want to learn from high-quality, experienced faculty. “I was amazed at the high caliber of speakers. Keep that! I also liked the accessibility of writing rock stars,” another writer noted.

We are committed to maintaining the workshop’s supportive atmosphere for writers from all levels of experience.

“The feel of the EBWW conference is very much like going to visit family, even though it was my first time and I hadn’t met anyone attending before. I like that it’s relatively small. It feels like a warm hug,” one wrote.

If you’re an established writer and teacher with an enthusiasm for helping others become stronger writers, we’d love to hear from you. The next Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop will be held March 31-April 2, 2016, at the University of Dayton, Erma’s alma mater. It’s the only workshop in the country devoted to the craft of humor and human interest writing.

— Teri Rizvi

Teri Rizvi is the founder and co-director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton.

The family pecking order

Cindy ArgientoMy husband and I were going through stuff in my closet when he came across our son’s baby book.

He looked through it and said, “Hey, you didn’t finish your sentence.” “What sentence?” I inquired. “The one where you started writing all the hopes and dreams you have for him and you stopped mid sentence.”

I peered over his shoulder to read what I wrote. “Huh, so I did,”

“Well, why didn’t you finish it?” “I meant to, but got busy and forgot.”

“You could finish it now if you want.” “I can’t remember what I wanted to say 23 years ago. My memory’s not that good.”

“Yet you remember everything I’ve ever said that was wrong.” “Oh, shut up.”

“Besides what were you so busy doing you forgot to write in his book?” “Oh, I don’t know, maybe being a mom and having a third kid.”

“Did we get a book for our third and last one?” “Probably not, if we did, I forgot where we put it.”

“So, we have one completed baby book for our firstborn, one half completed book for our middle child and none for our last, the baby.” “You got it.”

Not only did our firstborn get a completed baby book, which documented mundane things such as the first time she blinked, but she also got the undivided attention from young, patient parents. Since she was our one and only, we were on her like white on rice. She was the stereotype of a firstborn and if other siblings didn’t follow, an only child.

A sibling came along four years later. We loved him. We adored him and were grateful for him as his sister now had somebody besides us to play with. He relieved the pressure. With a second born you’re more relaxed and not so, shall I say, “anal.” You don’t freak out and sterilize bottles and pacifiers if they hit the ground. You give it a licking with your tongue and shove it back in their mouth. You don’t worry that at 13 months they’re crawling instead of walking. You make the most of it by securing dust rags to their knees so they can crawl and sweep simultaneously.

But, more relaxed does not mean more time. Two kids mean twice the work, which is why you may forget to write in their baby book. Luckily, I know he won’t mind, because, being true to the middle child stereotype, he is a peace keeper. He’d rather let things go than stir up a fuss. Also, he could console himself with the fact his younger sister didn’t even get a book.

His younger sister, our baby, came along four years later. By the time we had her, we went from being young parents to old parents. The baby of the family is stereotyped as spoiled and pampered. That’s not true. Parents love the baby equally, but the truth is you let them get away with stuff the others didn’t because you’re tired and old. You can fight with them over things or you can opt for peace and quiet. You can fight and make them eat their broccoli or you can sit and rest. You can fight with them about doing chores or you can sit and rest. You’re tired. You choose to sit.

You’re so tired that by the time your baby is 10 and comes up to you holding a six-pack and a carton of cigarettes and asks if it’s ok for him to indulge, you give him thumbs up. You know you should protest, but you don’t have the stamina. You sit in your recliner and rest.

So, it’s not that the baby is intentionally spoiled and pampered. It’s that the parents are old and tired. So, in reality, the baby is the happiest, most neglected kid in the family, except she just doesn’t know it. And if everybody keeps their mouth shut, she won’t know she  didn’t get a baby book.

— Cindy Argiento

Cindy Argiento’s first column appeared in the Greensboro News and Record as a Personal Ads feature on April 30, 2002. Later that year, her first “As I See It” column appeared in the High Point Enterprise, where it would become a regular feature for several years. Her columns also have appeared in the Reidsville Review, Eden Daily News, Gilroy Dispatch, Hollister Freelance, Hopewell News and Foothills Paper. Other essays have appeared in Chicken Soup For the Soul books, Family Matters and Married Life. Three of her pieces were recognized as a finalist, semi-finalist and honorable mention in “America’s Funniest Humor” writing contest. She blogs at Cindy’s World.

Venus and Mars

PJColandoLights out at 7:35 p.m.

No, this is not a description of our Baby Boomer bedtime.

Lights off, TV becalmed, desktop computers no longer sleeping, but shut down. More importantly, the carefully plugged-in emergency light poised between the kitchen and family room did not come on to bathe us in light.

Our family room felt vacuumed, cleared of light and sound. My fright went electric…

While one too many scary scenarios bloomed in my brain — was it terrorists, someone set to slay and/or rob us, a power company prank — my husband immediately slid outdoors. What?! He was leaving me alone?

In a few moments, in the sliding door he emerged, arms raised  in a victory pose, grinning broadly. Our entire neighborhood of approximately 100 hillside and flatland homes was “boom-boom, out go the lights!”

Meanwhile I was wondering why the emergency light didn’t flash on, and where the heck were matches for the candles, since the Bic Flicker wouldn’t light on our last foray with the outdoor barbecue.

Yes, I knew where the candles were. When panicked, it’s good to be organized. I had to grab my phone in case I needed to rapidly dial 9-1-1, but I needed light to reach my office, where it was nestled in my purse.

Different strokes for different folks: a need for light and glee for dark.

I never truly believed it before, but now I am an adherent:

Women are from Venus; men are from Mars.venus_and_mars

I do not revel in sudden power outages throughout our neighborhood, a vast swath of land down a hillside and extending a mile to a main street near a university. Murders have occurred in our perfect suburban, wealth-protected sphere. I succumbed to self-protection mode, while my husband sought to know extent of the problem. As a man of size and self-confidence, he immediately felt safe.

He’d never spent hours home alone, as I did for years, while he traveled on business in Elsewhere, USA. He’d never experienced the freaky, sporadic bumps and grinds of a roof with a dozen skylights, aroused by weather with wind.

My husband is an athlete, in command of his body, not a klutz like me. He is brilliant: his scientific knowledge and inquiring mind help him to feel in command of the world. He embraces the wild rumpus of nature and the beyond.

He’d never worked with victims of domestic violence…

Because of our different perspectives — not true planets of origin, because we are mutually humans from/on earth — we each found ease in our own way, complementing each other.

Always and forever. Amen.

P.S. The power came on at midnight, awakening me with lights on throughout our home. I got up to turn out the lights, while my husband snoozed on, perhaps dreaming of Mars.

He is My Favorite Martian.

— PJ Colando

For 25 years, Pat Jackson-Colando had a thriving practice in speech-language pathology. Publicly she introduced herself with the slogan: “If you can say my name, you don’t need to see me.” In a real-life plot twist, she has become a published author, with her debut novel, Stashes. Her flash fiction, short stories and essays have been published in Adelphean, ASHA Leader, IUPUI, The Message and Orange Coast magazines, as well as The Orange County Register newspaper. Her written work has also been anthologized in Open to Interpretation, The Biscuit, She Writes and Wisdom Has a Voice: Every Daughter’s Memories of Mother.

I’m still not sure why he married me

Kathryn LeehaneIn retrospect, all the warning signs were there that my husband never should have married me. He just didn’t heed them. Some days I question his judgment. Other days I’m just grateful that he was either blind or really horny in his early twenties.

Here’s what he overlooked:

• He witnessed me verbally assault a mutual friend who dared to eat one of my French fries at a restaurant. Our poor friend cowered in the booth as the rest of the patrons stared in wide-eyed horror.

• The first time I went to his parents’ house, his mom offered me bacon. Not cooked bacon, mind you. She had bought extra bacon at the store (it was on sale), and she offered me a package of uncooked bacon to take home. While this may seem slightly odd, the odder part of the story is that I DIDN’T TAKE THE BACON.

• Early in our dating history, I challenged him to a drinking contest. He had a good nine inches and 75 pounds on me, but I thought it was a good idea. Turned out that it wasn’t. I lost the contest. And then lost the contents of my stomach and my dignity in the bar bathroom.

So we’ve established that I am was am was selfish, foolish and arrogant. But he looked past those traits. Perhaps the most GLARING RED FLAG was waving the first time he made dinner for me.

At the time, I was in my early twenties and no culinary connoisseur. I was fairly adventurous, though, and he wanted to show me the world of sushi. He wanted to expand my horizons and open up my eyes to new cuisine. (You know he totally wanted to get lucky.)

Because he knew I had never tried sushi before, he opted to make California Rolls, the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich of the sushi world.

He went shopping at the nicest grocery store in town. He brought his own sushi rolling mat and other cooking supplies. He served me wine and put on music while he carefully made the seasoned rice and lovingly prepared all of the other ingredients.

And then he served me the most beautiful sushi I had ever seen (I had never seen sushi) and showed me how to dip and eat the pieces. I was gushing and smiling and tingling the entire time. Until I put that piece of sushi in my mouth and bit down.

I don’t know if it was the texture of the nori or the tang of the vinegar in the rice or the foreign combination of foods on my unrefined palate (I like sushi just fine now), but I couldn’t keep chewing. I bit down, and my mouth froze — as though I had bitten down on a piece of excrement. I fought back my gag reflex and tried my best to smile at this fabulous man.

“Well?” he asked expectantly. “What do you think? Do you love it?”

Here was this handsome guy in my kitchen trying so hard to impress me, and all I could think was, “There is NO WAY I can choke this sh*t down.”

So I didn’t. I bolted out of my chair, ran to my bathroom and spit his beautiful sushi creation RIGHT INTO THE TOILET.

I unceremoniously flushed it down, rinsed out my mouth, and walked back to the kitchen.

And then he ordered a pizza and married me anyways.

— Kathryn Leehane

Kathryn Leehane is a writer and humorist living in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and two children. Along with inhaling books, bacon and pinot noir, she writes the humor blog, Foxy Wine Pocket, where she shares twisted stories about her life as a mother, wife, friend and wine drinker in suburbia. She is a contributing author to several anthologies, and her essays have also been featured on BLUNTmoms, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and more. You can follow Foxy Wine Pocket on Facebook and Twitter.

Plastic nightmares

Judy ClarkeGuess what these dimensions define? Cardboard: 21-5/8″ x 6-7/8″ Clear plastic cover: 9-7/8″ x 7″ x 1-1/8″ Zipper: 9-7/8″

Give up?

It’s the packaging that encapsulated the two standard-size, 20″ x 30″ pillowcases I bought this week.

Don’t ask me why pillowcases, and indeed sheets, blankets and any number of other items need to be zipped up in plastic. True, the ones blankets come in can be reused to store out-of-season clothes, for instance, and I’ve used the smaller sizes to keep things sorted when I travel. But really, why can’t we just purchase such things “unwrapped,” so to speak?

My mother made sheets and pillowcases from muslin. Sometimes she prettified the pillow “sheets,” as she called them, with embroidery. The thought of buying something she could make for “half the price” was scandalous to her. To be truthful, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven the first time I slept on store-bought sheets. There’s a world of difference between unbleached muslin sheets and soft, combed-cotton ones.

Five decades ago I remember buying sheet sets that were wrapped only with a pretty satin ribbon tied in a bow. Back then, “off-the-shelf” meant a sales clerk took the items off the shelf behind the counter and showed the items to you gently, almost reverently.  Today, sadly, the term means the customer takes it off a shelf herself, handles it, makes her decision, and often, if she decides against the purchase, she shoves it back any ol’ where.

Today’s self-serve mentality has redefined both shopping and packaging.

Recently, California became the first state in the nation to outlaw plastic-film bags. Stores will no longer be able to provide disposable bags to shoppers and they must charge for paper bags. The hope is that people will rely on reusable bags instead. Eliminating disposables will reduce the amount of plastic film that winds up in waterways, on roadsides, in trees and landfills. Of course, manufacturers are already planning protests, but couldn’t they retool their factories to make reusable totes instead? Of course they could; they just don’t want to.pillows

These thoughts were tumbling around in my head the day I found the most perfect pillowcases ever! Smothered though they were in zippered  plastic, they promised bedtime solace and no nightmares.

— Judy Clarke

Judy Clarke is a wife, mother of two daughters, grandmother to two grown grandchildren, reader, writer and blogger in southwest Virginia. Her two non-fiction books, Mother Tough Wrote the Book and That’s all she wrote, can be found on her friends’ and family’s shelves, and she’s working on a novel, But why? (That’s the title of the novel, not a question to self).

Reflections of Erma