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

Erma Bombeck Wrighters' Workshop Banner

Then/Now
(Back in the day)

Tracy BucknerI noticed a sign outside a restaurant:

“No wifi.
Talk to each other.
Call your Mom.
Pretend it’s 1993.
Live.”

Normally I would agree.

I have made a career of complaining about NOW and how it was better THEN. And based on all the positive responses I get, many of you feel the same. But it’s like we have become our parents, grumbling and saying things like….

(Back in the day we didn’t need 600 online friends. We had five or six who were from the neighborhood who didn’t need to plug into anything to have fun, and were usually waiting outside to play ringalerio).

There’s a lot of complaining about today’s technology and what it’s done to us on a personal and social level, but I’ve started to embrace the fact that there are some real positives to being “plugged in.”

(Back in the day, we didn’t have texting. Your boyfriend had to break up with you in person)

THEN, there was the telephone. NOW, there’s texting. Without it I would never hear from my kids as much as I do. Granted it’s embarrassing when I text something to my son that was supposed to go to my brother, but as soon as I see “huh?” I know I’ve done something wrong. It’s also clear that I’m not quite getting through to my mother (who calls me every day, sometimes a few times a day) on the difference between texting and FaceTime. Patience, I remind myself. It will help me get into heaven. My daughter says, “Nanny’s face keeps appearing on my phone during class.” Practice patience, I tell her. It will help you get into heaven.

(Back in the day we had to read a map).

NOW, I couldn’t live without GPS.

THEN, I remember being in a constant state of lost. My blood pressure rising while valuable minutes slipped away. My way around this was 1-800-CALL-DAD, but first I had to find a phone booth and hope I had dimes. NOW, with GPS I’m never lost. My blood pressure remains constant while a sweet voice calmly recalculates without ever once saying “Lady, WTF?” My husband asks, “Don’t you want to have an idea of where you are going before you head off?” No. I do not.

(Back in the day we were happy with AM radio and the music was better).

NOW there’s my beloved IPOD. THEN I carpooled to middle school while a friend’s father insisted on listening to opera and wishing I had a pencil to stick in my eye. NOW I never have to listen to someone else’s music; not to mention all the great music apps that I don’t mind paying for in the least. And since everyone in my family, including my 84-year-old Dad, uses my password to share their music stations it’s very eclectic to say the least. Think the following playlists: John Phillip Sousa, Lil Wayne, Rolling Stones, Judy Garland, Bix Beidebecke, Country Fitness, Akon, 50 cent, Bruce, Broadway, Glenn Miller and NO OPERA.

But my all-time favorite thing about NOW is Google search and my personal assistant, SIRI. There’s something wonderful about typing the word eschatology on the dictionary app and instantly knowing what it means.

(Back when I was your age we had to walk over to the shelf and use a dictionary).

NOW I can find a solution to getting oil stains out of a sweater, if it’s safe to freeze chopped liver, how to mix a Moscow Mule. NOW we can look up a new drug for Alzheimer’s, listen to how a song is supposed to be played on the piano before practicing it wrong for two weeks, get a list for the best Caribbean vacation spots in December, amazing hotels, what they look like and some reviews. We can find the weather in Canberra and pack accordingly, track a flight, find cheap gas, check the NASDAQ, reserve a cab, map the stars at night and know how to perfectly poach a chicken…INSTANTLY!

(Back when I was your age, we had to read a cookbook).

And these are just my short list of what I love about NOW! So instead of complaining about the disappearance of all that was THEN, make your own list of what you are better for NOW. You might be happily surprised by all you have gained.

I was.

Then turn off your WIFI and go call your Mom. It will help you with your patience and getting into heaven.

— Tracy Buckner

Tracy Buckner contributes periodically to the Observer Tribune Newspaper of Chester, N.J., and blogs for the New Jersey Hills Newspaper, serving Madison, Chatham and Chester, N.J. She enjoys writing about the slow decline and vows to go down kicking and screaming. You can see read other pieces and sign up to follow her on her blog.

Mr. Tan Shoes and me at KFC

Jan WilbergThe other night at KFC, an older guy came in while I was waiting for my order. His hair was completely white and he wore those tan orthopedic shoes that are popular with folks fed up with pretending. He ordered a big bucket of chicken and two sides. Just like me.

I hadn’t been in a KFC in 10 years but the idea of fried chicken after a long day of helping a friend clear out her dead mother’s house seemed irresistible, so much so that I drove a mile past it and then made a U-turn, no mean trick in my husband’s new F-150 which has a turning radius of about a half mile. I went inside the KFC because ordering at the drive-thru makes me crazy. It’s indecipherable. Summed up as ‘what kind of sauce?’ What Kind of Sauce? WHAT KIND OF SAUCE? Screaming for food, I hate it. One of the queer life impediments of major hearing loss.

So I parked the silver bomber (aka the Chromemobile) and went inside.

“You know it makes a lot more sense to just get a small soda and fill it up than to get a big one.” He demonstrated by filling his small cup.

“So true,” I nodded, although this lesson has taken me many years to learn. The wisdom of age comes in these tiny droplets. Buy the small soda and refill it. You heard it here. From me on the mount.

His talking about soda made me want to have one. Suddenly, at that moment, there was nothing I wanted more than a small soda.

So I ordered one. The KFC guy handed me a cup, just a tad larger than what one might pee in at the doctor’s. “That is certainly small,” I said. Then he handed me a larger cup. So now I had two cups. There was dialogue that went along with all these cups but I only caught part of it. I’m a week into my new cochlear implant and, man, there is a ton of stuff I don’t get. Which is somewhat a what’s new situation but not.

After I got my soda and tossed the smaller cup in the trash, I continued waiting at the counter with Mr. Tan Shoes. He smiled at me. It seemed like he was trying to come up with another conversational gambit since the soda size topic kind of fizzled out.

You know where this is going. You can see it coming down the highway like a semi-truck hauling one of those mobile homes, big flags on either side and a little car in front warning the world of an “OVERSIZE LOAD.”

“So,” Mr. Tan Shoes said, leaning on the counter like he was waiting for another round of jello shots at the Christmas party and nodding in the direction of the ‘kitchen.’ I waited.

He shrugged and I could feel him wondering if we would have this one thing in common. Maybe it would be the start of something.

“Extra crispy or original recipe?”

Our eyes locked.

“Oh, original recipe,” I answered, frowning and shaking my head like I found just the thought of extra crispy to be beyond the pale. Unacceptable. Unorthodox. Trifling with the KFC brand. “Definitely original recipe,” I added, just to make sure I was in the right column. FOR original recipe. AGAINST extra crispy.

Then my order came up. At exactly the same moment, Mr. Tan Shoes and I said exactly the same thing, making me wonder later if I’d passed on a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“Have a good evening,” we chorused.

And we did, I think, each with our own perfect chicken.

— Jan Wilberg

Jan Wilberg writes about everything from national politics to outwitting rats in the basement with the help of her two sons. She is a mother, grandmother and a formerly hearing impaired person rejoicing in the miracle of her new cochlear implant. Her blog Red’s Wrap has a tagline that says it all: Happiness. It’s relative.

Apollo marries Adrian in Creed

Sammy SportfaceIn the new movie Creed, Apollo Creed marries Adrian and they have a baby named Creed. Rocky Balboa gets jealous because he was married to Adrian when he had those two fights with Apollo in Rocky I and II.

From Balboa’s perspective he and Adrian had a good life together. Sure, the marriage wasn’t perfect but none of them are.

But Apollo, whom Rocky thought he become good friends with, stole her away. Friends turn on each other from time to time.

Apollo seduced Adrian after Clubber Lang almost seduced her in Rocky III at a press conference on the steps of a Philadelphia government building in front of which was a statue of Rocky.

At that crowded event, Clubber invited Adrian to his place where she could get to know a real man, implying Balboa was not a real man. Lang, also known as Mr. T., claimed Balboa was afraid to take on Clubber in a title fight because Lang had a malicious Mohawk and was, according to Balboa’s trainer Mickey, a wrecking machine. Mickey died in that movie but reappears in the movie as Creed’s trainer.

Adrian never went to Clubber’s house — she feared his physique — but she always felt Apollo was handsome and neatly dressed. She especially like that he was articulate, a much smoother verbalizer of his thoughts than her unsophisticated husband who said “Yo” all the time.

She had been thinking lately if he said “Yo Adrian” to her one more time, that she would punch him in the face. There it was again: boxing. Always boxing.

Her life was always about the brutal sport since she met him at the bird and turtle store many years earlier when life was simpler. Like so many people, she longed for less complexity.

When Apollo helped train Balboa to fight Clubber in Rocky III, she saw how caring a person he was. He sprinted on the beach with her husband to get him ready to beat the Mohawk Wrecking Machine.

That showed he was a man of kindness and concern for someone other than himself.

Her attraction to Apollo intensified.

She also developed an attraction for Tommy Gunn, who fought Balboa in the streets of Philadelphia. But Gunn, she decided, was too young for her.

While yearning for less complexity, paradoxically she sought more of it.

She didn’t want to work in the store anymore where Rocky bought his turtles, Cuff and Link. She wanted more from her life, and felt unfulfilled being married to a guy who kept making movies about himself that ended up with him, in Rocky XVIVL, fighting a Russian and making a “jump the shark” political statement after he won that fight in his red, white and blue American flag boxing trunks.

Adrian got tired of her husband going back to the gym and working out for his next fight because he felt that’s all he knew how to do. The Rambo movies weren’t generating enough income or fame for her husband so he would always go back to his core competency of making another Rocky movie.

Rocky X, Rocky XI, Rocky LMX.

All this added up to a marriage gone stale. Many do.

The American dream had once again been shredded.

This is why she married Apollo. And because they were married, they had a baby named Creed. Married people create children.

Creed is a movie about a woman getting tired of her husband. It’s about a man moving in on another man’s wife. It’s about a man losing the only woman he ever loved but having to come to terms with the fact that he loved himself and making Rocky movies more.

This is about a man knowing deep down in his heart he was afraid of Clubber Lang and never wanted to fight him. But he knew he had to or Rocky III would not have had a fight. All his movies have to have a fight or they aren’t Rocky movies.

This is a movie about the young kid, Creed, who grows up in Philadelphia and drops out of high school. He starts to read books and writes a script for a movie called Creed about an unknown boxer in Philadephia getting a chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed. No one in Hollywood thinks the movie will work.

Creed, son of Apollo who himself shockingly becomes a boxer, continues to knock on doors and believes this story about him being born the son of Apollo Creed and Adrian will be a mega-hit. Finally one movie producer agrees to make the movie but wants someone else to play the part of Creed because of Creed’s lack of acting experience.

Creed insists that he be the star of the movie or there will be no movie. The producer agrees yet doubts the project will be a box office hit.

Creed then starts training on how to box. He hooks up with a trainer named Mickey at a nasty gym in the Philadelphia slums. He is only half committed to this way of life but is making enough money to get by. In the movie’s opening scene, he fights a journeyman named Spider Rico and beats him by the length of a boxing glove.

Feeling lonely, Creed then goes to a small turtle and bird store because he’s attracted to the woman who stands at the cash register with her unattractive glasses on. He convinces her to go out with him and tells her, after seducing her up to his junk pile apartment, that he wants to kiss her.

“I just want to kiss you,” he says. “You don’t have to kiss me. But I want to kiss you.”

Though scared, she falls prey to the moment and human instincts. They embrace, smooch, and fall to the ground near the front door. One wonders, but it can be imagined, what happens after that.

Creed tells her he would rather fight Tommy Gunn than Apollo Creed because Creed, who is Creed’s dad, has quicker hands.

“If they want me to fight the fight, I’ll fight the fight but it has to be with Tommy Gunn in the streets,” Creed says. “His hands are slower than Apollo’s. I can’t stand it when Apollo pops me in the face before I see his fist coming at me.”

Creed changes his name to Rocky Balboa.

He makes a movie called Rocky. The star of the movie is Rocky Balboa.

Apollo takes her glasses off. He thinks she looks much prettier with her glasses off.

— Sammy Sportface

Sammy Sportface is possibly America’s best sports blogger. Sometimes relevant and insightful. Often funny and satirical. Only mildly interested in the truth. He’s written an ebook, Wipe That Smile Off Sammy Sportface, blogs at Sammysportface.com, can be found on Twitter and is accessible via email at sammysportface@gmail.com. His pieces appear frequently on the sports website, Ngscsports.com.

Place matters

Connie BerrySeriously, I just realized earlier today that I wrote an entire blog talking about how I’m 53. I’m 54. How do you spell denial?

Personally, I love aging. I was never a hot chick in a bikini anyway so I don’t really know what it’s like to feel devastated now that my breasts touch my belly button. They were halfway there when I was nine.

Maybe I just forgot that I’m 54. God knows I forget a whole lot of other stuff. This all comes to the forefront because I’ve recently watched that Still Alice movie. I’ve always liked Julianne Moore because she’s not your usual cleavage actress. But in Still Alice she really gets to me. She’s got the familial Alzheimer’s and it ain’t pretty. God love her for playing that part and at least bringing a discussion to the table.

The older I get the more I realize that courage is the most effective character trait you could ever have. Anybody can do a lot of stuff, but unless you’re willing to move out of the box and take on something completely foreign to you (and sometimes to everyone else) you aren’t going to make change happen. It’s like all those great quotes I’ve gathered over the years…be the change you want to see in the world….you must do the thing you think you cannot do. That stuff takes courage.

You’ll get talked about and you’ll get discouraged. And I wouldn’t suggest agitating anyone unless you are completely comfortable and prepared for what that means.

And I wouldn’t suggest a move of any kind in any direction in any part of your life unless you are okay with who you are. You gotta know yourself and you have to be okay with yourself before you really move forward in any direction. The beauty of this is that once you know yourself and you are okay with who you are, you have no boundaries. You can literally do anything because you know you can. The only one who limits you is you.

Now, if I could only apply that whole risk-taking mantra to myself, it might really make a difference in my life.

I was turned upside down when I lost my most recent job. Mostly because it meant I wasn’t contributing to my family’s livelihood. I have spent almost 20 years bringing home the biggest paycheck. And after all, isn’t that the most important thing for my family?

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I feel like a loser, with a big ol’ L on my forehead. I am definitely out of my comfort zone.

The fear of the unknown is weighing heavily on me now. I have a lack of confidence in my employment area that I’ve never known before and yet I’m at a place in my life where I feel better about everything else. I had no confidence at age 20; conversely at age 50 I just began to recognize all my awesome goodness.

I guess what I want to say is that your awesome goodness is always there; you just don’t know it. I could feel like crap because I’m in this crazy career limbo or I could keep thinking that the right thing will happen when it’s supposed to happen. And because I’m old, I have a lot of faith in the fact that whatever I’m supposed to do, it will present itself to me one way or another. And it won’t be the way I’m expecting and it won’t happen on my timeline. It will just happen. And I know it will. It always does.

— Connie Berry

Connie Berry grew up reading and loving Erma Bombeck. She is former editor of The Catholic Sun newspaper in Syracuse, N.Y., and a new resident of Martha’s Vineyard where she was copy editor for the Vineyard Gazette. She lives on the island with her husband and youngest son. Her two older children read her blog, thejoblessgoddess.blogspot.com, from Syracuse.

Christmas Eve in Boca Palms

Sue GelberTwas the night before Christmas and all through the house, every creature was stirring except for my spouse.

He sprawled on the couch, drinking beer after beer, along with Uncle Timmy, who kept yelling “Cheers!”

“It’s the Twelve Beers of Christmas,” he said with a grin. And we’re staying all week? Oh please, where’s the gin?

The stockings weren’t hung by the chimney with care because there were no stockings of any kind there.

I’d ordered online with “Economy Shipping,” but no packages arrived. Where’s that gin for sipping?

The children were not nestled snug in their beds, but instead were sugared up out of their heads.

My Dad had insisted on making hot cocoa, despite the fact that it made the kids loco.

It’s got too much caffeine; they’ll be up all night. And kids plus Florida décor? A fright!

“Away from that couch! Off Grandma’s white rug! Now go wash your hands. Put down that mug!”

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, it sounded like the hiss of a cat being battered.

“Just the sprinklers,” Dad said, turning up the TV. The sound of Fox News filled him with glee.

The moon on the breast of the freshly cut grass reminded me that the evening was starting to pass.

And since none of my packages were coming, I supposed, I had to get to Walgreens before it closed.

But, oh, I fretted. What presents could I get? A Clapper? A Snuggie? A new Chia Pet?

Celine Dion perfume? Some pore-cleansing cream? A jar of mixed nuts? Trial-sized Listerine?

When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but that lovely old truck, brown as any reindeer.

With a little old driver whose eyes were afire; he was the real deal, not a seasonal hire.

His droll little mouth was drawn up in a bow, until, that is, he saw that the sprinklers aflow.

“Hey,” he said to me with a scoff, “I can’t deliver if you don’t turn those off.”

I started to panic, as frantic as could be. “Dad, I need help, turn off the TV!”

But Dad in his recliner was snoring away. It was all up to me to save the day.

I ran to the garage for the sprinkler control box. Somehow I had to get the water shut off!

I opened the cover, then let out a groan. My dad had labeled each little zone.

With teeny typed stickers, all the way around the dial: Flower bed, palm tree, pachysandra pile.

North bed, south bed, sidewalk, flower trough. West lawn, south lawn, but oh, where was OFF?

I grabbed the dial and just started turning, past lawns north and east, the cycles churning.

I heard a clunk. The water died to a trickle. Was the UPS man still there? Or was he too fickle?

I opened the garage door. Was I too late? And now I was stressed. Walgreens closed at eight!

The door arose revealing our large Christmas haul. Box upon box, packages for all.

He spoke not a word but went straight to his work, carrying so many cartons I felt like a jerk.

From eBay and Walmart and of course Amazon. BestBuy, Old Navy, even Batteries.com.

I thanked him profusely, “Oh, how relieved I am…” But he cut me off saying, “Please sign here, ma’am.”

He strode to his truck and put it gear, then paused and smiled at me with cheer.

I heard him exclaim, a criticism vocal, “Merry Christmas to all, but next year shop local.”

— Sue Gelber

Sue Gelber is a New Englander turned Chicagoan now living in Colorado. She is also a part-time Montanan, although she does not own a cowboy hat. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Examined Life Journal and Realize Magazine. For several years she penned a local fitness column for Patch.com. She recently switched to decaf, however, so she suspects that her best days are behind her. When the mood is right, she blogs at lifeoutsidethecomfortzone.com.

Scenes from a (Boomer) marriage

 

Roxanne JonesAnyone who’s in a live-in relationship surely has them — those slices of life that reveal what day-to-day cohabitation is really like. With apologies to Ingmar Bergman for co-opting the title of his cinematic masterpiece, here are some scenes from my marriage that take a somewhat — shall we say — lighter tone:

Scene One:

It’s 3 a.m. Hubs has returned to bed from his nightly trip to the bathroom. I’m awakened by his jostling and so decide to get up and pee as well. Upon my return to the marriage bed, I take his hand. He speaks:

Hubs: Ith Teth neckth to you?
Me: What?
Hubs: I thed, ith Teth neckth to you?

I suddenly realize that his unintelligible mumble is because he’s wearing his dental guard and I’m wearing earplugs. We laugh so hard I’m glad I just emptied my bladder. (BTW, he was asking me if our cat Tess was next to me.)

Scene Two:

Hubs and I are in the kitchen, having just finished lunch, and are putting our dishes in the dishwasher. I look at him and notice a blob of mayonnaise at the corner of his mouth.

Me: There’s a blob of mayonnaise just outside the right corner of your mouth; can’t you feel it?
Hubs: Yeah, I knew it was there.
Me: You did not.
Hubs: No, I didn’t. Isn’t it weird that as we get older, you don’t feel stuff on your face?
Me: Let’s promise to always tell each other if there’s food on our faces, especially if we’re out in public, okay?
Hubs:  Okay.

Scene Three:

It’s a warm summer day in Maine. All the windows in the house are open to catch whatever breeze may waft by. The air is so still I can even hear our neighbors working in their garden across the street. Hubs and I are walking from the kitchen to the living room, with one of our cats leading the way, when I blurt out loudly:

Me: Dammit, you just dropped a turd on the floor…and you’ve got poop stuck to your butt!
Hubs: (Looks at me, silent.)
Me: I hope the neighbors remember we have cats and don’t think I’m yelling at you.

Scene Four:

Hubs and I have just finished breakfast and, in his endearing way, he starts thinking about dinner.

Hubs: So, what’s for dinner?
Me: I don’t know; I hadn’t really thought about it. What would you like?
Hubs: Oh, I don’t care. You’re cooking, so you decide.
Me: Okay, I’ll make that salmon and pasta dish.
Hubs: (Scrunches up face to show distaste.)
Me: Well, I guess that wasn’t the right answer. Did you have something in mind?
Hubs: What about chicken piccata?
Me: Why didn’t you just say that when I asked you what you wanted?
Hubs: I didn’t think of it then.

Scene Five:

Since Hubs has retired and I continue to work, he’s taken on several household chores that used to be my domain — laundry and grocery-shopping chief among them. I come downstairs from my home office to find a load of laundry on the dining room table, all folded and ready to be put away.

Hubs: I did your laundry today.
Me: Oh, you didn’t do your laundry, too?
Hubs: You know what I mean.
Me: No, what did you mean?
Hubs: Well, you could say thank you.
Me: Like how you say thank you when I clean the bathrooms, wash the floors, scoop the litter box, wash the windows, vacuum, dust, wipe down the counters, periodically clean out closets and drawers, change the sheets and water the plants?
Hubs: Oh, never mind.
Me: Thank you.

The secret sauce for
long-term relationships
has 
got to be laughter.

–Roxanne Jones

Roxanne Jones blogs at boomerhaiku.com, a mostly lighthearted, often irreverent look at life as a baby boomer, 17 syllables at a time. When she’s not tapping out haikus, she’s a freelance medical copywriter, enjoys chardonnay and contemplates plastic surgery to get rid of the wattle on her neck.

Princess boy: Two strategies for turning Barbie into C3PO

Courtney BennettSandwiched between two sisters, it’s easy to see where our special needs son gets his love for all things sparkly, pink and royal.

At first, we decided not to make an issue of it, and our princess boy happily pranced around in mermaid dress-up clothes and asked for dolls at every gift-giving opportunity. While typically developing kids may have a deep interest in a toy, topic or play theme for about six months, our son lived in a magical kingdom for a solid three years.

Really dude, Barbies?

As he grew older, we realized that we needed to manage his obsession with pink-hued play options. For one thing, his peers were starting to notice. “Really dude, Barbies?” asked one younger boy, when our son was discussing his interest in dolls.

Social interactions will always be a big challenge for our son, and we didn’t want his interests to contribute to the problem.

Expanding and redirecting

To help find a balance, we used two strategies: redirecting and expanding. Most parents know the strategy of redirecting, and it works great with typical children: you redirect a child’s attention to something else by offering another option. Here’s an example: your youngest child is throwing a fit because her older siblings are excluding her from a game. You redirect by a) offering to read her a book, b) finding a game that all three can play, or c) banishing all three outside to play while you pour yourself a glass of wine.

Redirecting isn’t sufficient for kids with autism because of their tendency to focus with laser-like intensity on ideas and objects, also known as perseverating. But fortunately there’s another strategy you can use in tandem with redirecting, which builds on the child’s interests and develops them in different directions. It’s called expanding.

We started working with an in-home Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapist and our son’s teacher to expand his interests. For instance, we expanded his princess theme by getting a castle that any boy would love — dark, scary and complete with dragons, a moat with flames and a prince. His in-home therapist also started to encourage him to play the part of the prince in games. At first, he wasn’t having it: “I’m not a prince, I’m a princess,” he declared, but his (male) therapist kept talking about how great princes and boys are, and one day my son decided he was a boy after all. At school, we shifted his rewards from princess stickers to iPad activities.

We also encouraged his interest in any character or toy that was more gender neutral, or boy-focused. He doesn’t have an interest in sports teams or athletes, but he likes baseball hats, a small victory. Recently he discovered Star Wars and Chima Legos, and happily dressed as C3PO at Halloween. We also bought him clothes and toys featuring gender-neutral characters from popular movies, like the Minions. If that sounds too pricey, printing a picture of the character or toy for him to carry around was often enough.

Finding a balance

While he still gravitates toward his sisters’ interests, and enjoys activities and toys that are more girl-oriented than boy, our son now has enough gender-appropriate interests to engage peers in play and conversation.

— Courtney Bennett

Courtney Bennett is the mom of three kids, two typically developing girls and a boy with special needs. In addition to parenting and blogging, she works in education policy for a university. She has contributed pieces to Sunset magazine, Psychology Today, parenting magazines, public radio and the op-ed pages of The Philadelphia Inquirer. She spent a long time in school avoiding the real world and holds a Ph.D. in communications and an MSc in social psychology.

What’s in a name?

Helene Hirsch WingensMy name is Helene.

Once upon a time I lived in a nice little town with a Starbucks. I visited almost every day and ordered my usual. They knew me so well that after I gave birth to my third child my husband went in and ordered my drink and based solely on what he ordered they asked, “Did Helene have the baby? How is she?”

They cared or I thought they did. Then in an ironic twist, one day they began to ask customers for their names to put on their coffee orders. It was ostensibly a move that would help the baristas get to know their customers better and distribute the drinks more efficiently but in fact the new methods proved to me that they didn’t know me at all. It was a new company policy, they said. Well, none of us liked the new policy, but what were we at the store level, consumer or employee to do? In the words of Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh, “So it is written, so it shall be done.”

The first time they butchered my name on a cup I was deeply disappointed but not enough to correct the barista. They had enough problems keeping up with the drink orders, didn’t they? Deeply disappointed, you ask? Over a misspelled name?  What, after all, is in a name? Just everything — identity, belonging, all that you are.  It’s the first thing your parents do, they name you. And, as it turns out, the number of ways you can misspell Helene are as limitless as the stars in the sky and many of the ways were so creative that I wish I had kept all of the cups with my misspelled name just for a hoot.

Time moved on and so did we, to a new town and a new Starbucks and I had the opportunity for a clean slate. So at the new Starbucks when they asked for my name, before I could stop myself I said, “Pam.” You can’t get Pam wrong. It just can’t be done. And, each time thereafter when they asked for my name, I said “Pam” because once you’ve fallen into a hole, unless someone hands you a ladder, it’s hard to climb out. They never ever misspelled Pam, but I never for one second felt good about this foolish, petty deception. A friend saw “Pam” on my cup and asked why my coffee cup said “Pam?” And I was compelled to launch into the whole asinine explanation of my Starbucks alias, and then in yoga class they saw my cup and begin to call me “Pam.” The effort to avoid spelling H E L E N E has ended in long explanations of why my coffee cup said “Pam.” What in the end have I gained?

Then after three years of frequenting this new Starbucks the workers there start to become familiar with me and after a three-day absence the barista says, “I’ve missed you, Pam.” That’s when I crack. I’ve never been a good liar, so I lean across the counter, “My name is really Helene,” I whisper. “What?” she asks. “My name is not Pam,” I say a little louder this time. “Pam is my Starbucks alias. My real name is Helene.” Oh, she says, looking at me oddly.

But, no matter, because I feel lighter, no longer burdened by my alias.

Make that a tall, skim mocha, no whip for H E L E N E.

Let P A M  get her own damn drink.

— Helene Hirsch Wingens

Helene Hirsch Wingens is a mother of three boys, wife, daughter, sometimes writer and retired lawyer. With 50 in the rear-view mirror, she’s trying to figure out if there’s a second act — and what it is. Her writing can be found online at themid.com, The Forward and Betterafter50.com.

Reflections of Erma