College commencement season is once again upon us. Because I work in higher education, I’ve been to about 40 of these (some institutions host more than one per year). These events feature speakers who, like their counterparts at high school graduations, offer the same familiar bromides time after time. I’ve heard my fair share and can recite these platitudes by heart.
Were I asked to speak at a commencement, I’d confound expectations and offer the following advice and counsel.
Members of the Class of 2016: I’m honored to have the opportunity to address you today.
Commencement, we all know, signifies a beginning — the beginning of student loan payments, additional crushing debt, a life of heartache and despair, and in most cases a future destined ultimately for failure. Believe me, you’re better off staying here and avoiding the real world altogether.
I know you think you’ll be the exception, and you’ve been told you are the best and brightest of your generation. Well, let me assure you you’re not. If you were, you’d be graduating from a better college. You are average. You’ll remain average. You’ll have average jobs, make an average wage, drive an average car and live in an average house.
You are not going to change the world. If anything, you’ll screw it up even more.
Perhaps you have big dreams and have been encouraged to follow them. Do not. Dreams are silly exercises. They don’t come true. You will eventually become disillusioned and realize how foolish you were.
Likewise, don’t follow what you believe is your passion. Instead, be opportunistic. Seek security and safety. Settle for what’s right in front of you. Risk is overrated. It’s dangerous and foolish. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It’s often brown and disgusting and full of weeds.
Whatever initial path you choose, if you do fail, quit and try something else. Don’t bother mounting the same horse; he’ll only throw you off again. Such persistence, as we know, is the definition of insanity.
Yes, you may get bored, but you have to ask yourself if boredom is preferable to failure. I think you’ll agree it is. Change, you’ll discover, is your enemy. With change comes fear, and we all want to avoid fear. Fear is not something to be embraced and overcome; it is something to run from. Seek stability and comfort in the familiar and you’ll be happier for it. Nothing ventured, nothing lost.
You’ll find, too, that hard work simply doesn’t pay off. You’ll work hard but fall victim to organizational politics, nepotism, personality conflicts and general bad fortune. Do just enough work not to get fired, and you’ll think you’ve won. Advancement isn’t the end game; steady employment is.
What you’ve learned over the past few years is probably all you’ll need to get by. Lifelong learning is a waste of time and effort. If anything, submit to lifelong training — but here again, gain just enough basic skills to keep doing your job adequately. Anything beyond that is gilding the lily, and to what end?
At some point in your career, you’ll become more defined by what you’ve done than by what you want. You will concede to living the life others expect you to live. That’s okay. Don’t attempt to think or act outside this box. It provides valuable shelter.
If you do get ahead and achieve some modicum of success, it will likely occur because of luck. Bear in mind that you don’t make your own luck; it happens to you accidentally. You are an unwitting bystander to your own fate. Accept it now and get used to it.
And once you leave this middling institution, you’d do well never to return. Staying engaged with your alma mater is pointless. You served your time here, you paid your tuition and you earned your degree. It’s time to move on. You may wish to network among your 30,000 fellow alumni, but they have nothing to offer you, nor you them.
Finally, don’t waste your money or time giving back. Helping others does nothing to get you ahead. Your charity won’t help them anyway. This institution will lay on the guilt trip about supporting the next generation. Let them suffer like you have. You don’t owe them a thing. Charity begins at home — theirs, not yours.
Let me conclude by offering my congratulations to the Class of 2016. This is truly a noteworthy occasion, and you’ll probably never be happier than you are now. In fact, I guarantee it. You are poised to embark on a tepid journey marked by mediocrity and predictability.
In the years to come, if you remember anything from this address, let it be this: If you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, don’t take any and you won’t miss.
— Mark J. Drozdowski
Mark J. Drozdowski is a writer, humorist and aspiring pundit. He was a columnist for The Chronicle of Higher Education for nine years and currently writes a humor column, “Special Edification,” for Inside Higher Ed. His writing has appeared inThe New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe Magazine, theBaltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant and Salon, among other publications and websites. He blogs at drdroz.wordpress.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @drdroz.
Whenever I attempt to do something I can’t do — sing, dance, perform surgery — somebody tells me not to quit my day job. The only people who want me to quit are my bosses, who don’t realize that the reason I have my day job is that I am spectacularly unqualified to do anything else.
Still, you never know when you will no longer be gainfully (or, in my case, ungainfully) employed. So, because I have had a fair career, I recently went to a career fair. It was held, perhaps not coincidentally, at the company where I work on Long Island, New York.
The first thing I found out, after stopping at a table sponsored by my company, is that I couldn’t get a job with my company. That’s because they were looking for someone to provide technical support.
“Technically speaking, my 3-year-old granddaughter is more advanced than I am,” I admitted, “which means she would have to support me.”
“Can you do anything else?” asked Craig Brusseler, talent manager for operations.
“Aside from telling bad jokes, I have no talent,” I said. “And hospital patients wouldn’t trust me to do operations.”
But Chrissy Huber, a sales recruiter, thought I had promise.
“You have a good personality,” she noted, “so you could go door to door to convince people who have switched to another cable company to come back to us.”
“What if somebody thought I was a scam artist and called the cops?” I wondered. “I don’t want to go back to prison.”
Chrissy raised her eyebrows, extended her hand and said, “Good luck with your job search.”
I had bad luck at the next table, which was sponsored by BMW.
“We are looking for technicians,” said recruiter Stefan Schedel.
“I’d have an easier time transcribing the Dead Sea Scrolls than telling you what’s going on under the hood of a car,” I confessed.
“I’m afraid you’re not the kind of person we’re looking for,” said Renai Ellison, another recruiter.
“Could I at least get a free car out of the deal?” I asked.
I didn’t. But I did get a free tote bag. I dropped in the Cablevision Frisbee and the pen I got from my company.
Next I stopped at the Liberty Mutual table, where Maureen Baranello and Robert Moore were looking for someone to sell insurance.
“It involves outside referrals,” Maureen said.
“I don’t like working outside,” I replied. “What if it rains?”
“Buy a raincoat and an umbrella,” Robert suggested.
I told the two recruiters about the time I got into a car accident that was caused by a guy whose GPS told him to go the wrong way down a one-way street.
“Your company covered the damage,” I said.
“You can tell that story to potential customers,” said Maureen.
“Does the job include crunching numbers?” I inquired.
“Yes,” Robert said. “Lots of them.”
“I’ll have to disqualify myself,” I said. “One of the reasons I went into journalism is because I can’t do math. I’d bankrupt your company in a week.”
I’d do the same to Bethpage Federal Credit Union, whose recruiter, Amanda Shatel, said I couldn’t refinance my mortgage so I wouldn’t have any more payments.
“I helped bail out the banks,” I pointed out. “Would yours do the same for me?”
“Sorry,” said Amanda, who gave me a free letter opener so I could open my mortgage statements.
I visited other tables — including those sponsored by Riverhead Building Supply, where I got a paint stick and a rubber hammer; The Arbors, which runs assisted living communities, where I got another pen; and David Lerner Associates, an investment broker, where I got a handshake — but nothing panned out.
“Did you go to the career fair?” one of my bosses asked when I returned to my desk.
“Yes,” I said.
“How’d it go?” he wondered.
“Bad news,” I said. “I’m not quitting my day job.”
— Jerry Zezima
Jerry Zezima, who served on the faculty at the 2010 EBWW, writes a humor column for the Stamford Advocate that is nationally syndicated through the Tribune News Service and regularly appears in the Huffington Post. He’s written three books, Grandfather Knows Best, Leave it to Boomer and The Empty Nest Chronicles. He has won six humor-writing awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and was named EBWW’s Humor Writer of the Month twice. He is currently president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
If you ever plan to visit Seattle or interact in any way with someone from the Pacific Northwest, it might be helpful to learn about the Seattle NO. In Seattle, for whatever reason, people shy away from directly expressing a No in any situation. Those of you not from the area may be confused: how can someone avoid saying No?
Well, it’s tricky. Often we mean No and whatever we do say instead of No, we assume the listener knows that what we mean is NO. If you invite someone from Seattle to an event and they respond, “Hmm that sounds interesting, I’ll have to check,” that means NO. If they say “Maybe” and then you don’t hear from them for a while, that means NO. If they say “I don’t know,” that means NO.
It should be noted, sometimes any of these responses may actually mean that they have to check or “maybe” or that they don’t know. Any of these responses could conceivably lead to an eventual Yes. Except usually what they mean is NO.
So why don’t they just say NO? I have no idea. Since I’m from Seattle, I’ve been hearing this response and giving it myself my whole life and had never thought twice about it. When, last year, a friend mentioned the term ‘Seattle No’ to me, I was intrigued. “It’s our passive aggressive way of saying No,” he claimed. According to my friend, when we feel NO, we mean it just as much as someone from Chicago or New York City, but if you went to those places, those people would be direct about it. They’d just say NO.
His theory was that in Seattle, no matter how much we truly want to say NO, we worry what other people will think of us if we say the word. We want to live NO without being held accountable for choosing NO. We want it both ways. Apparently, we as a region, have decided that really good people say Yes to everything and that saying NO to anything would be a social gaffe along the lines of spilling soup down one’s chin.
He had moved to Seattle at age eight; that’s how he so keenly spotted the difference.
At first I wanted to argue the point, but then realized he was right. Once he had pointed it out, I could think of numerous times I’d done the Seattle NO and that I’d heard everyone I know do it as well. I wondered if avoiding a direct NO meant we were polite or just sketchy.
And it isn’t like people in Seattle agree on everything or never question anything. God, no. We love to make a fuss over things both big and small. We debate over coffee, on the sidewalk and in our classrooms. We like to talk and do a lot of it. People running for office in Seattle get to hear a lot of people talking, and they’re expected to listen to everyone.
We have opinions. Sometimes these opinions get translated into laws, and sometimes those laws seem so smart that other states duplicate them. We are passionately for some things and against others. On ballots, we check the box we mean.
Just don’t ask us a yes or no question. If you do, you’ll hear an iffy-sounding answer that will leave you confused. If we answer at all. We may just let you leave a message and then we won’t return it because we’ll suddenly be busy. Or the phone must not have worked. Or something. Why, we’ll tell five or six white lies before ever admitting that we just wanted to say NO to begin with.
So are people from Seattle great big liars? No, not really. You see, we expect the listener to understand we’re saying NO. When people seem confused and confront someone here, claiming they were somehow led on, we are quick to defend ourselves: “What I said was I’m not sure. I never said Yes.”
In fact, it’s seen as a social gaffe (again, like spilling your soup) to not recognize a Seattle NO when you hear one. Asking someone the same question a second time is seen as tacky, in bad form. It’s putting the other person in an uncomfortable position where they might have to be slightly less vague and possibly hurt your feelings. That’s what they were trying to avoid in the first place.
In other words, you may not hear the word NO, but if you hear any combination of vague terms that doesn’t include the word Yes, you should take it as a NO.
Why should we care so much about what people think? We aren’t sure. The best way I can think to explain it is that we believe, somewhere deep down, that if we just directly say NO, we will appear not unlike Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver saying “You talkin’ to me?” And while we may love Robert De Niro, we don’t want to come off like Travis Bickle in the movie.
Any time in any situation you get the response: we’ll have to get back to you, that’s a Seattle NO. What it means is we won’t be getting back to you, we’ll be hiding from you because we’ll be scared you’ll ask that question again. So if I tell you I’ll have to get back to you, it means you’ll probably never hear from me again in your lifetime.
If you’re from Seattle, you’ll understand that immediately, the minute you hear me say it. You won’t bother wasting your time, waiting for my call or leaving me confused messages. You’ll have already gotten my answer, which we both understood was NO.
But if you’re new to the area, and by New I mean Not Born Here, you may wonder if I’m still alive. Since I said I’d get back to you, you may incorrectly assume I’m someday going to get back to you. You may even feel miffed when I never do. If I learn that you’re offended, my reaction will be to once again be passive aggressive and claim I’ve been busy and that I’ve meant to get back to you.
Which will actually mean: Damn, why did I have to run into HIM? I’m never going to THIS coffee shop again. It will also mean I think you’re a moron for not understanding that I had been trying to give you a polite brush off. Or as you might call it, totally lying. I will feel somewhat superior to you because I tried to spare your feelings by being polite and you were some kind of dimwitted caveman who kept practically begging me to disappoint you.
So just to be clear, if you don’t hear the word Yes, we have said NO.
It’s somewhat similar to how, in Hawaii, the word Aloha means 100 different things. We’re somewhat like that except we have 100 different things we say that actually all mean the word NO.
I say this to help you. And if you’re from outside Washington state and have never encountered this Seattle NO business, you may find it exhilarating to come to our state and try it out. Because if you’re from one of those places where people actually come right out and say NO, you understand that people are frequently then required to answer WHY NOT and often things get angry.
Here you never reach the WHY NOT stage (which usually leads to the angry stage) because you never actually said NO to begin with. You said I’m not sure or I’ll have to get back to you, and then the question just blew away like old dandelion puff. We may sort of be liars, but we’re civilized. Maybe that’s why we’re consistently voted one of the friendliest cities in the U.S. No one’s walking around fuming from hearing NO or from being asked WHY NOT. Maybe we have extra patience just waiting to be given to someone needing assistance or directions or advice.
Heck, in Seattle you don’t even need to go up to someone and ask for directions. If you stand there looking lost, someone will come up to you and ask you if you need help. They’ll probably offer to quickly draw you a map and if you still seem confused, they may even take you to your destination themselves. And if you try to thank them or express that these are nice gestures, they’ll dismiss your thanks and tell you no problem, that they’re glad to help. And they’ll mean it.
So in Seattle, we aren’t total a**holes. See, this is maybe why I don’t work for the state tourism board, because I’d come up with slogans just like that one. Or others: Washington, Where Bands Don’t Suck or Washington, Yeah The Coffee Is That Good.
So In Seattle, firm replies are hard to come by. Unless the reply is Yes. That’s an answer we do know how to give and we give it quickly and sincerely. Ask me a Yes question and I’ll love it.
But if I can’t say Yes, I’m going to have to get back to you.
— Amie Ryan
Amie Ryan is a Seattle writer who has self-published two collections of essays and a biography of Marilyn Monroe. She grew up reading Erma Bombeck’s books and watching her Good Morning America segments.
Another Mother’s Day has come and gone, and I still can’t believe I couldn’t hug and kiss you, give you a mushy card, and a box of Godiva’s.
You know the tradition in the church on Mother’s Day, when they pass out pink carnations to women who still have a living mother, and white to those whose mothers have died? I remember the year you were no longer eligible for a pink flower. I was heartbroken, and pushed aside thoughts that I was next in line to qualify for this rite of passage.
I was in my 40s when I realized there was something confusing about your childbearing years. You had two girls, Noreen and Linda, and then a boy, Marvin. Six years later, I was born. I inquired, “Mom, was I an accident?” You replied with a little too much haste, “No! Well, I mean, not really. We were happy about you once we got used to the idea.” I never suspected that I was an unplanned pregnancy, a tribute to the way you loved me completely.
I admit there is relief in knowing “the end of your story.” I was worried about you as you aged. Questions lurked, “How would you die? Would you suffer? Would you lose your mental faculties?”
Consistent with your loving and open nature, you shared your end-of-life experience with us. We kept you comfortable at home, with the assistance of hospice. On 9/7/07 at 7 a.m. with 7 of us at your side, you passed from this life to the next, offering us one last radiant smile. You were 87 years old and you and Dad had celebrated your 70th wedding anniversary earlier that year. It is no coincidence that seven is a number that represents completion.
One of the many things you taught us was to laugh at ourselves, even during tense situations.
True to this teaching, you always laughed at the retelling of your famous cranberry story. The setting was a marathon shopping jaunt with daughters Linda and Noreen, and granddaughter Bridget. When it was lunch time, you stopped at a local diner. Service was slow, and you were ravenous. You started to complain with increasing volume and urgency.
When the server offered a dry saltine cracker, you jumped to your feet, and announced you were leaving. Linda grabbed your shirttail and pulled you back in your seat. Bridget innocently offered you some dried cranberries she carried for emergencies, to which you bellowed, “Cranberries! Who wants cranberries? I’d eat chocolate-covered raisins, but cranberries?”
From that time on, when the ladies planned an expedition, there was a checklist comparable to preparing a plane for takeoff. And there was no announcement of “all clear” until confirming that someone had packed chocolate-covered raisins.
One of the ways I worked through my grief after you died was to write letters to you using my dominant right hand. Then I would write your replies, using my left hand. In one of my letters I asked you how you adjusted after you lost your own mother, and this was your reply.
I don’t know how I did it when my Mom died. Of course I was sad, but I kept living. She always lived in my heart, as I will yours. Go ahead, not backward. Live and laugh. I am always with you, more than when I lived on earth. I love you, my baby girl.
It took time before I could go ahead, not backward. But I am happy to say I took your advice, and I am living and laughing.
And I don’t leave home without chocolate-covered raisins.
— Molly Stevens
Molly Stevens arrived late to the writing desk, but is forever grateful her second act took this direction instead of adult tricycle racing or hoarding cats. She blogs at www.shallowreflections.com, where she skims over important topics, like her love affair with white potatoes and why she saves user manuals.
We librarians are expected to check out your books and answer your reference questions, but we’re often called upon to perform other tasks. When a Facebook pal recently asked her fellow librarians: “What has been your most memorable ‘other duty’ since you began your career?” the responses she got might surprise people who think that library work is quiet, routine and humdrum:
Breaking up fights between moms in our play area.
Picking up poop in the Storybook Garden before the ice cream social.
I once guided the bomb squad as they slowly and methodically combed through our two-story library. Empty phone threat — phew!
Escorting a pigeon from the computer lab.
Breaking up a couple making whoopee in the women’s bathroom. (I was the very definition of “coitus interruptus.”)
Putting pajamas on a llama. (He was part of a story time presentation.)
Administering first aid to a patron who was stabbed in the computer lab.
I do Potty Story Time, so once every three months I spend 30 minutes extolling the virtues of pooping in a toilet to a room full of strangers.
Posing for stock photos.
Distracting a student (who’d threatened a prof with a gun before hiding out at the library) until the police arrived.
Checking to see if the dude who’d been in his car in our parking lot for hours, motionless, was dead. (He wasn’t. Just sound asleep.)
Holding a bag containing a baby wallaby so it would stay calm during a story time presentation.
Chasing down and tackling the jerk who grabbed our “Donate Your Spare Change To the Library” canister and ran out the door with it.
Helping patrons apply for Moose Permits.
Removing a black widow spider.
Climbing onto the roof to retrieve a young patron’s stuffed animal.
Administering CPR to a patron who had a heart attack in the Reading Room. (He survived.)
Making a sign for one of our bathrooms that said, “There is a live duck in the bathroom. Do not let it out. Use the other bathroom.”
So the next time the line backs up at your library’s circulation desk because there’s only one librarian on duty instead of the usual two? Don’t get angry. That other librarian may be busy fixing the furnace, holding a wallaby, shoveling the sidewalk…or saving a life.
— Roz Warren
Roz Warren is the author of Our Bodies, Our Shelves: A Collection of Library Humor. This essay first appeared in www.womensvoicesforchange.org.
Just call me Grandpa Groovy.
I’m undergoing a new stage in life. Cutting my second set of false teeth. A recurrence of midlife mischief.
As expected and dreaded, my face has indeed acquired considerably more character lines than when I cut my first set of choppers (and temporarily possessed a red Ferrari). This time, as fate would have it, one scary surprise has devolved: the hair on my arms, legs and chest have vanished. Without waxing.
But one ace in the hole has lain under my cap for years. I still have a huge load of head hair. Hasn’t even turned gray. Yet. Except my beard. So, as a natural born narcissist, I dye my beard to match my head hair. Well, matches, except when I become preoccupied during the dying process and leave the dye on too damn long. And I do that all the time. Scariest sight I’ve ever seen in a mirror. Terrifies others too, but I’m a prankster so that’s a bonus. Still, as a guy who couldn’t grow hair on his face until I was 36, even an exceptionally black and scary beard is better than no beard.
To unscramble my hideous hormones in time to maintain my image as a radical rascal, I’ve decided to recapture a particular piece of my youth before the parade passes by. I’ve let my stunning head of hair grow to hippy-length. Furthermore, I race around town spewing out hippy words like “Right on! and Uptight!” Even big hippy words like “Relevant!” and “Establishment.” Plus substituting the word “sir” with “man,” as in “Hey, man, what time does the ocean close?”
A few days ago, it was warm enough in New York City for me to wear a tank top. On the subway, I noticed two young girls no older than 45 or 50 staring at me, their faces wreathed with smiles. I knew my long locks had gotten their attention. Ah, I was young again. Stevo still had it. And just when I had been told that my hippy hair was making me too stuck up to live with.
Then, a few days later, I was toweling off after a shower when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. To my horror, I noticed a pathetic hunk of sagging skin hanging under my right arm. I checked my other arm. Ah, thank God. The skin was sagging there, too. Symmetrical sagging. A dream come true. Not! My God almighty! Those smiling subway girls weren’t admiring my daring hairstyle. They were giggling over my loose skin.
Blessed as I am with oodles of head hair, there’s still no denying that gravity can be vicious on an aging body. I’ve all but given up my membership to nude beaches. Still, I search for ways to at least make my aging face fit better with my comely coiffure. I ruled out Botox. No way, man. Allergic. To needles. But I’m super-allergic to wrinkles. Not to worry: turns out that lying down on my back makes facial wrinkles disappear.
Ya know, I’m almost certain I can recall Erma Bombeck’s puzzling out in jest once how to enter a room horizontally. With class. Clearly, Erma possessed a decided advantage. She was sane. In a recent nightmare, my grandsons carried me into a roomful of people for a grand entrance, with not a wrinkle on my face. Problem was, when I stood up, everyone shrieked and scattered. Everyone except those two gals from the subway who were pointing at me and laughing hysterically.
As the hippest hipster on the block, I’m not trying to find myself anymore. I’m just trying to do my own thang. I’m forbidden to buy a Harley Davidson to accommodate my second midlife crisis, but I do get plenty of second looks riding on a senior citizen tricycle, my long hair freely flowing in the wind. The other day, I peddled to the park and came upon another baby boomer who has adopted the hippy look. I’m such a trendsetter. He, too, was piloting his senior tricycle, probably cruising for chicks.
“Hey man, what up? Nice bell-bottoms,” I said.
“Sup, man? Nice we’re having weather.”
“Like totally, man. Nice we’re having weather.”
Instant bonding. Turned out we both love to play the boyhood game of marbles, but no one else will play with us. We agreed to get together some Sunday and play marbles.
Here’s a pathetic coincidence: Neither one of us can find our marbles. Lost. What are the odds?
— Steve Eskew
Retired businessman Steve Eskew received master’s degrees in dramatic arts and communication studies from the University of Nebraska at Omaha after he turned 50. After one of his professors asked him to write a theater column, he began a career as a journalist at The Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs, Iowa. This led to hundreds of publications in a number of newspapers, most of which appear on his website, eskewtotherescue.com.
Our mothers are our first and most important female role models.
In those early years, they are the center of our universes. We think they know everything.
A few years later, the eye-rolling starts and before long, we’re bound and determined to do the exact opposite of anything our mothers tell us we should do.
Here is the one thing you should know about my mom — she had perfect attendance in high school, a fact she never failed to throw in our faces.
“MOM! I think I have that flesh-eating bacteria. Or maybe leprosy. I can’t go to school today. Call the attendance office and tell them I won’t be in.”
“Linda. Get your uniform on and get to school. I had perfect attendance in high school, you know.”
Now, it’s possible it didn’t go down that way. Probably, she didn’t throw it in our faces at all. In fact, I may never even have had a flesh-eating bacteria.
Memory is a fallible thing.
Maybe it went something like this:
The young, sassy version of me standing in the kitchen, hands on my hips. “Pam’s mom is a nurse. Peggy’s mom works for Century 21 and wears a gold blazer. Lisa’s mom makes homemade ravioli on Thanksgiving. Have you ever done anything? What do you have for me to toss into this competition, Mother?”
And she’d be all lower-lip-trembling, blinking back tears, her voice breaking up “Well… I did have perfect attendance in high school, but, really, it was no big deal.”
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of those two scenarios. I don’t actually remember Mom telling us she had perfect attendance. As a little girl, I remember going through her big leather jewelry chest, one drawer at a time, and seeing that high school perfect-attendance pin laying there on the red velvet next to her class ring and some of the most amazing giant daisy clip-on earrings I had ever seen.
I just always knew my mom had perfect attendance in high school.
Some years after high school, she married my dad and before long, she had three babies in diapers at the same time. We weren’t multiples, we were just Irish. And Catholic.
Eventually, my youngest sister joined the family. Once all four of us were in school, my mom went back to work. It wasn’t gold-blazer job or anything like that, but still, it was a darn good job. I don’t think they gave perfect attendance awards at work, but if they did, she would have gotten one. Well, until the blizzard hit.
In 1982, St. Louis had a huge blizzard. Over 18 inches of snow fell on us on a quiet Sunday. The whole city came to a standstill. Monday was, of course, a snow day for us kids, but my mom was determined to go to work. She had all four of us out there digging her car out of its city block parking spot. And we did. We dug that car out. I remember thinking, “Now what, Mom?” I wondered if she was going to have us run ahead of the car and shovel the road all the way to Anheuser-Busch.
If there was a perfect attendance award at her work, she lost it that day. She couldn’t get to the office. She was not happy. My mom didn’t like to miss work. She wasn’t the type to not show up.
Because, as you know, she had perfect attendance in high school.
In contrast, I did not.
My siblings and I knew better than to try to fake illness with my mom to get out of school. Fortunately, she left early for work and my dad was the parent in charge in the mornings. My strategy, once I reached the devious and brilliant age of adolescence, was to wait for Mom to leave and then approach Dad.
“Uh, Dad? I have really bad cramps.” I would say. He didn’t ask questions after that.
That only worked until Mom found out, because even with menstrual cramps, Mom showed up.
The truth is, I didn’t even finish high school. I had to do that Catholic schoolgirl walk of shame, my white blouse untucked from my uniform skirt to cover up my burgeoning baby bump. I finished my diploma via correspondence courses. My mom made sure I showed up, even if it was by U.S. Postal Service.
My first daughter was born when I was 18. I was still living at home. I needed some time to get my mom-legs steady under me and learn how to handle this whole being-in-charge-of-another-human thing. My mom showed up for me through all of that.
Eventually, I moved out and then had a second child. When the marriage to their father failed, I found myself a single mother to two beautiful daughters. I had my kids and I had a job, but he took the only car we had so I had no vehicle and no money with which to buy one.
During that period in my life, my mom showed up at my house every morning. She picked me and the girls up, drove to my babysitter’s house so I could drop my kids off, drove to my office so she could drop her kid off, then she went to work. At the end of the day, my mom showed up to pick me up from work, then took me to pick my daughters up, took us home and finally went home herself. For over a year, five days a week, until I could afford a little used car of my own, my mom showed up for me.
Over the years, my mom showed up for a lot of things. Softball games, band concerts, birthday parties. Sometimes I landed on her doorstep with an overdrawn checking account or a failed marriage and she showed up for me then, too.
Looking back, I kind of wish we would have shoveled her all the way to work the day of that blizzard in 1982.
I can’t go back and do that, of course, but what I can do, and what I’ve tried to do, is follow in her footsteps and show up for my daughters. And while I’ve been tempted to join the Witness Protection Program during those teen years, thus far, I’ve been true to her example.
I’ve shown up for them because my mother, the most important role model in my life, always showed up for me.
Needless to say, I stopped rolling my eyes many years ago.
There’s a lot going on in my life right now. I’ve just started a new job. I’m in the middle of a divorce. Sometimes I need someone to pick up my kids for me and sometimes I need someone to pick up the phone for me. In any case, I know I can reach out to my mom, because where motherhood is concerned, she has perfect attendance.
— Linda Doty
Linda Doty is a writer. She writes on Twitter as @LindaInDisguise, she writes on her personal blog, Just Linda, and professionally on LinkedIn. Rumor has it, she even writes on bathroom walls. She’s a St. Louis native, has five daughters, ranging from age 12 to 31, and two grandsons with two more grandchildren (twins!) on the way. Linda works as an astronaut for a large corporation (not really, but it’s easier to say that than to try to explain what she does). She writes and writes and waits to be discovered, but is secretly terrified it will be by a concerned mental health professional rather than a big-time publisher.
“You don’t have to be 21 to have your whole life ahead of you.”
With those simple words, author and actress Kathy Kinney uncovered one of the secrets behind the enormous popularity of the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.
This spring’s workshop sold out in five hours and 41 minutes, with writers making the creative pilgrimage to campus from all parts of the country, Canada and Spain. Thanks to the ongoing generosity of the Alumni Association, nearly 20 communication students soaked in the inspiration and writing tips, too, from an all-star roster that featured humorist Roy Blount Jr., novelist Amy Ephron, Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel and New York Times’ bestselling author Jenny Lawson.
Writers know this biennial workshop, launched in 2000, is not like any other in the country. I’ve described it as part love letter, part family reunion, part pep talk. Kinney, perhaps best known for her portrayal of the campy Mimi on The Drew Carey Show, and her writing partner Cindy Ratzlaff brought the encouragement writers need to face a blank page or forge through a horrible first draft.
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear,” Kinney said. “Just walk through it.”
Every time I enter the packed Dayton Marriott Hotel ballroom for the opening keynote dinner, I’m taken aback by the energy and exuberance, by the laughter and warmth. As the 20th anniversary of Erma’s death approached this spring, I felt her legacy even more deeply through a new generation of writers who gathered in her memory to laugh, learn and support one another on the often-lonely writing journey.
“We cannot think of a better legacy for our mom than this workshop,” said Matt Bombeck midway through the workshop as he introduced the new one-woman show, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, that sparked tears and laughter.
In her heyday, Bombeck’s column appeared in 900 newspapers. She wrote 12 books, nine of which appeared on The New York Times’ Bestsellers list. For 11 years, Americans woke up to her humorous segments on Good Morning America. A 1949 alumnae, she never forgot “three magic words” from Bro. Tom Price, S.M., her English professor. After she slipped a humorous essay under his door, he greeted her with words that sustained her the rest of her life: “You can write!”
That’s the spirit we try to bottle in an event that has, largely by word of mouth, gained national notoriety and a loyal following of writers who affectionately call themselves a tribe.
“What happens when 350 people, predominantly women, truck in from all across the U.S. to spend three full days laughing (and a little crying), eating (mostly desserts) and baring their souls to each other? Magic. In a place called Dayton. That’s not a punchline,” blogged Kimberly “Kimba” J. Dalferes, a former Justice Department official turned book author.
Creativity coach Julia Roberts called the workshop “a utopia for humor writers that only appears every other year, out of the mist, on the edge of the Great Miami River in Dayton, Ohio (like Brigadoon…).”
For me, the workshop’s power can be found in the small moments: At lunch one day emcee Pat Wynn Brown surprised long-retired school teacher Lori Mansell by “crowning” her queen. Refusing to take her tiara off, she enjoyed the curtsies and bows from other attendees all afternoon — then went home to Carmel, Indiana, and wrote and published her first essay.
“It’s never too late to start writing,” Brown said. “Our new queen once told her tap dance group in California she was only 76 ‘because they kick you out at 80.’”
It’s a lesson worth living: You don’t have to be 21 to have your whole life ahead of you.
— Teri Rizvi
Teri Rizvi founded the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, where she also serves as executive director of strategic communications.