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Holiday hints (not from Heloise)

Abby-Heugel-228x300There are a lot of weird things we do around the holidays that wouldn’t be, should I say, socially acceptable any other time of year. People put a lot of pressure on themselves — and reindeer antlers on their cars — to uphold these traditions, which can sap the spirit right out of the season.

Well, my festive friends. I’m once again here to offer some tips.

So put on your ugly sweater and pour yourself a cup of alcoholic pancake batter — also known as eggnog — and let’s begin.

Deck the Halls

First of all, there’s the whole matter of decorations. In a seemingly paradoxical twist, people chop down trees from outdoors like amateur lumberjacks to bring into the house before putting lights from indoors back outside.

I’ll leave exterior illumination to all you Clark Griswolds out there. But when it comes to the inside décor, I suggest it is best done in stages:

1) Binge clean, knowing you won’t want to move the crap off the mantle to dust for at least the next month.

2) Find the fragile decorations in the box labeled “Don’t Set Anything On Top Of” at the bottom of a stack of boxes.

3) Sit on the couch with your beverage of choice, stare at the boxes and hope for a holiday miracle.

4) Hang old socks by the fireplace and then tie foliage — a.k.a. the mistletoe — above a doorway to encourage awkward displays of affection between people who accidently stop there to ask where you keep the good wine.

5) Run out of tinsel for the tree, thread aluminum foil through a shredder. If tree is fake, consider leaving it up all year to avoid having to haul it back out. Decorate it for various holidays. Use the branches to dry out your socks.

It’s Santa!

Speaking of Santa, technically speaking parents are lying, as sitting on the lap of a possible pedophile from the polar peninsula wouldn’t be encouraged in the middle of May when Little Suzy wants a pony.

But much like push-up bras, I fully support this hopeful yet delusional concept. After all, it sounds much better than, “Hey kids! There’s a fat guy with OCD (Making a list! Checking it twice!) employing midgets who will break into your home, eat your food and leave gifts, but only after watching your every move throughout the year!”

Anyway, with Santa comes presents, and with presents comes wrapping. While it’s lovely to have sparkling seasonal paper, sometimes you get stuck in a pinch. In those instances, I suggest using “Happy Birthday” paper and writing “Jesus” after it.If you’re not religious, write “Rudolph.”  After being ostracized for the whole year, let the poor little guy catch a break.

Visions of Sugar Plums

People who normally make nothing more than dinner reservations take to playing the role of Martha Stewart. They give away slightly burned cookies and “traditional family foods” that everyone in the family is sick of after two weeks under the guise of it being a gift.

If you’re not into baking, do not despair! Regift the goodies you’re given, throw flour on your clothes, light a sugar cookie candle and call it good.

Fa la la!

— Abby Heugel

Abby Heugel is a professional writer and editor of trade publications for employment, but a neurotic humor writer the rest of the time for enjoyment. She runs mental marathons in yoga pants and blogs her brilliant insights. She makes you feel normal. She’s the author of Abby Has Issues and Abby Still Has Issues.

Top 10 tips for making a great pitch

(David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut, known as “The Book Doctors” are bringing the wildly popular “Pitchapalooza” to the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. They describe the event as “The American Idol for books, only kinder and gentler.”)

Sterry, David HenryYour pitch is one of the most powerful and underrated arrows in your quiver as you attempt to scale the walls of Publishing Castle.  Here are just a few helpful tips.

1. A great pitch is like a poem. Every word counts.

2. Make us fall in love with your hero. Whether you’re writing a novel or memoir, you have to make us root for your flawed but lovable hero.

3. Make us hate your villain. Show us someone unique and dastardly whom we can’t wait to hiss at.

4. Just because your kids love to hear your story at bedtime doesn’t mean you’re automatically qualified to get a publishing deal. So make sure not to include this information in your pitch.

5. If you have any particular expertise that relates to your novel, tell us. Establishing your credentials will help us trust you.

6. Your pitch is your audition to show us what a brilliant writer you are; it has to be the very best of your writing.

7. Don’t make your pitch a book report. Make it sing and soar and amaze.

8. A pitch is like a movie trailer.  You start with an incredibly exciting/funny/sexy/romantic/etc. close-up with intense specificity, then you pull back to show the big picture and tell us the themes and broad strokes that build to a climax.

9. Leave us with a cliffhanger.  The ideal reaction to a pitch is, “Oh my God, what happens next?”

10. Show us what’s unique, exciting, valuable, awesome, unexpected about your project, and why it’s comfortable, familiar and proven.

Here’s a link to interview I did about pitching for NPR.

We’re offering free 20-minute consultations (worth $100) to anyone who buys a new copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published.  The book will be available for sale at the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

— David Henry Sterry

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a screenwriter, comic and actor. He is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and NPR, and his work has appeared everywhere from the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review to The London Times. As a screenwriter, he has written for Disney, Fox and Nickelodeon. He co-wrote the book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, with his wife and literary agent Arielle Eckstut. Together, they are “The Book Doctors.” Both are part of the 2014 EBWW faculty.

Battle of the bras

(This piece first appeared in Psychology Today on Dec. 4, 2013. Reposted by permission of Gina Barreca. It’s adapted from her book, It’s Not That I’m Bitter (St. Martin’s Press).

Like Scarlett O’Hara swearing away into the sunset, you make a solemn pledge to yourself:  you WILL get a bra that fits exactly the way it is supposed to fit.

This will never happen.

Not even if you are a woman.

Let’s start by telling the truth: there is no perfect brassiere. How do I know? If there were a perfect brassiere, women around the globe would be texting, telephoning, yelling over backyard fences, e-mailing, sending smoke signals — anything — to alert other women that the quest has proved fruitful at last. The ideal ur-bra having been discovered is not information a self-respecting member of the sisterhood would keep to herself.

Some of us were part of the generation that decided bras were simply worn evidence of the partriarchy’s worn-out, lopsided stance on the need to repress and contain women’s bodies. Many of us decided that, unlike our mothers and grandmothers, we would not shove and stuff our flesh inside girdles and corsets as if we were made of Play Doh and could be molded at will. We felt fine wearing T-shirts, thank you, with nothing between us and our front pockets (pockets which were strategically placed). After the famous poster of Farah Fawcett from the mid-’70s, in fact, pockets were no longer de rigeur; even cheerleader-types could kill their Living Bras.

Ten years ago I bought the perfect brassiere for $15.95 but once the manufacturers heard I liked it, they stopped making that model.

There are still battles to be fought in terms of gaining full equity for women, and the battle of the bra remains a small (don’t even try to make a joke here) but significant one.

Turns out that the culture is, yes, still trying to get women to control our bodies in order to meet men’s specifications in terms of beauty. That is bad. What is worse — it becomes clear after wearing brassieres more than 30 years — is that women’s underwear was clearly designed by men. By the same bunch who gave us stiletto heels. By the same group who designed automatically-self-destructing pantyhose. By the same geniuses who encouraged us to start thinking that we were insufficiently feminine if we did not get bikini waxes. As if “bring forth children in pain” were not enough, we must inflict anguish upon ourselves whenever possible in order to be a real girl.

So what, in the bra arena, can a girl do?

Should you resign yourself to buying big, old white brassieres from a catalog, the kind that hoist your breasts up and practically swing them over your shoulders? Should you buy a cute bra for $76.50 that will look cute as long as it does not actually touch your person?

My extensive research shows that bras fit for the first 15 minutes whereupon they partake of the “shrink-wrap” effect. Body temperature causes the elastic in the shoulder straps to wither and tighten, causing uncontrollably itching in the middle of your back. Front-closure bras, while a good idea, have the unfortunate tendency to pop, causing your breasts to fling themselves onto the dinner plate.

Sometimes not even your own dinner plate.

Sports bras are great but look funny under formal wear.

What can professional expertise offer? The following passage is lifted directly from a manufacturer’s website: “Add 5 to the measurement (i.e., if ‘A is 29,’ the back size is 34). After 33 inches, only add 3 inches to the back measurement (i.e., if ‘A is 35,’ the back size is 38). This measurement should equal your back size calculation. For example, if you measured 29 inches around your ribcage, the calculation is 29 + 5 = 34.”

If I could do that kind of math, I wouldn’t be sitting hear trying to figure out my cup size. I would be solving the mysteries of the universe. Or at the very least topping up my already sizable portfolio, the profits of which I would have been able to bank on because I was good at figures. If I were very good at figures, I wouldn’t have to worry so much about mine.

I would buy whatever Scarlett O’Hara was wearing. Even when she raised her fist into the air, it seemed to fit.

— Gina Barreca

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a feminist scholar who has written eight books. She regularly writes columns for the Hartford Courant, The Huffington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Psychology Today. In 2012, she served as a keynoter at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and is returning to be part of the faculty in 2014. Learn more about Gina here.

Christmas chaos

I will not repeat the chaos of Christmas a few years ago. On the “night before the night before the night before Christmas” things were out of control.  Shopping was almost done (but not quite), groceries were almost bought (but not quite), and it all came crashing down on me! I looked in the mirror and saw the lines under my eyes, the wrinkles around my mouth and a bunch of gray hairs standing straight up at the top of my head like a silver crown gone awry.

I dashed to the drugstore and bought what was described as “Lively Brown.”  My brown could use a little “lively.”  Staring at me from another shelf was something called “frosted peach,” touting “vitamin-E and wrinkle decrease.”  I dropped it in the shopping cart and headed home.

I had just enough time before everyone arrived for the traditional “night before the night before the night before” dinner to color my hair.  “No Peek” stew was in the oven.  Dinner was under control.

Taking longer than I should have to beautify myself, I noticed that the “lively brown” and “frosted peach” had worked overtime.  It was hard to tell what smelled worse – the “No Peek Stew” (that smelled like I’d better peek) or the mixture of “lively brown” and “frosted peach.”  I turned the oven off, rinsed my hair like there was no tomorrow and washed the “decrease” off my face.  I pointed the dryer at my mangled hair. Talk about lively brown!  Well, who cares?  No one ever notices me anyhow!

When the doorbell rang, I opened the door and my son said, “Mom!  What in the world happened to your hair?”  Here I am, surrounded by beautiful Christmas decorations and the tree absolutely loaded with lights and ornaments and he asks about my hair!

“Nothing happened to my hair.  Do you like the tree?”

He rolled his eyes at his wife and said, “And what is that smell?  I know it’s not apple crisp.  It smells like peaches – or something.” I claimed innocence about the smell and then pouted for sympathy.  “No one ever notices me,” I whined, “and now that something is wrong, all you can do is criticize me.”

My oldest granddaughter hugged me and said, “Oh, Grammy, I like your hair and once you wash it, some of that color will come out.  And if you want, I could put some streaks in it.  It won’t take long.” Eyes bright with excitement, she added “We could do it after dinner!”  She looked at her cousin and said, “I can streak yours, too!”

I felt better already until my son said, “If you didn’t make apple crisp, life is not worth living.  And trust me; you don’t want her to put streaks in your hair.  She streaked her sister’s three weeks ago and they haven’t spoken since.”  I glanced at my granddaughter and she did resemble a skunk but I just smiled and told her I thought she looked cute. The girls stomped off to look under the tree. The 5-year-old boys hung onto me like they thought maybe I was going to die on the spot.

That was the Christmas that I was reminded again to enjoy the wonders of the season.  I will always try to be a good mom and grandma and make apple crisp. It doesn’t really matter what color my hair is, and I know that.

What really matters is that the celebrations with family and friends include the gifts of loving hugs and mutual delight in the season.

— By Caroline Overlund-Reid

Caroline Overlund-Reid, a writer in Bakersfield, Calif., retired twice — once from an executive administrative position for a major oil company and then from a part-time position in her daughter’s consulting business. She now spends her time writing, submitting queries and reading rejection letters. She has been published twice in Chicken Soup for the Soul and wrote a humor column for a now-defunct local newspaper called The Northwest Voice.  She freely shares her opinion in many published letters to the editor in the Bakersfield Californian.

Holiday from hell

Christmas 2001 will forever be known as The Day Of The Neighborhood Flu Epidemic. There is nothing worse than spending a major holiday like Christmas with your head in the toilet when you should be taking advantage of the biggest, guilt-free binge fest day of the year.

There is no cheerful clinking of champagne glasses or popping sugar cookies in your mouth faster than an aardvark sucking up ants. There is only LONELY time in the bathroom to contemplate the identity of the fiesta-colored items that erupt from your stomach into the toilet bowl. Nor is it fun to be a party of one when you’ve been quarantined from family and friends like the town pariah. Swapping gifts on Christmas is fine. Germs, not so much. But the flu bug doesn’t have discerning tastes and will happily descend upon whatever poor, unsuspecting host it can find.

In 2001, we attended the annual neighborhood holiday party, which is traditionally held a few days before Christmas. As was custom, the entire block gathered for the festive event at a neighbor’s home to chat with old friends and strain the waistband of our pants with an array of holiday foods. Little did we know that our stomachs and intestines were preparing to take us for a ride on the toilet train to hell.

There was a child at the party who was recovering from a recent bout of the flu, but none of us gave it a second thought as we chatted over rum balls and queso dip.

The party was a success and we left that night with full bellies and happy hearts.  We had no clue that an invisible, uninvited guest had followed the majority of us home.

By Christmas Eve, the entire block was infected by the nefarious flu bug that took us down one by one like dominoes. The bubonic plague was alive and well in our neighborhood. The “Welcome To Our Home” plaque outside our front door should have been changed to: “Welcome To The Vomitorium.”

While others were listening to “O Holy Night” and sipping apple cider, my oldest son and I were singing “O Wretched Night,” curled in the fetal position with a vomit bowl between us. It didn’t matter that the stockings were not hung by the chimney with care, because old St. Nicolas was not going to be coming there. The ONLY thing that mattered to me was the sprinting distance between my mattress and the bathroom door. The problem was that I couldn’t decide which end should hit the toilet first — my mouth or my backside. I ended up sitting on the throne with the vomit bowl in my lap and called it a BOGO — buy one get one free.

That night we missed the candlelight Christmas Eve services at church, along with the big solo my son was to perform with the choir. He was too busy making a casserole in the toilet bowl to be bothered with hitting a few high notes. The Hubs was forced to pull double duty with babysitting, gift wrapping and stocking stuffing, not to mention all those pesky “Assembly Required” packages stored in the garage.

Christmas morning I was greeted by the cheery sounds of retching and moaning behind the bathroom door. The Hubs was down for the count, along with two more of our children. I knew it was a bad start to the day when no one raced into the living room to see what surprises Santa had left under the tree. The only surprise I wanted from Mr. Claus was a second toilet, along with a gallon of Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate.

Once we reached four hours of vomit-free bliss, we felt well enough to attend the big family dinner at my folk’s home. Selfish perhaps, but we were stir crazy from staring into the well of a toilet bowl for 24 hours and needed to get out of the house. We took into consideration that our motley crew looked like Typhoid Mary survivors, but we did our best to control the contagious bug by refraining from bodily contact.  At least the surgical masks and gloves we donned made for some interesting Christmas family photos.

As we drove home that night and congratulated ourselves for surviving the holiday with our intestines intact, we heard the sound no parent ever wants to hear while they’re behind the wheel of a car.

“Mommy! Daddy!  I think I’m going to be sick…”

If we pretended not to hear our youngest daughter in the backseat, we were certain the specter of illness would surely disappear.

Apparently Santa had other plans for us.

Is it any wonder why the following year there was a new porcelain throne under the Christmas tree with my name on it?

— Marcia Kester Doyle

Marcia Kester Doyle is the author of the humorous blog “Menopausal Mother,” where she muses on the good, the bad and the ugly side of menopausal mayhem. Give her some wine and a jar of Nutella and she’ll be your best friend. Marcia’s work has appeared on Scary Mommy, Mamapedia, Bloggy Moms, Messy Mom’s Radio, The Woven Press, the Life Well Blogged series and was voted Top 25 in the Circle Of Mom’s Contest 2013. You can find her blog here.

I want to be Erma Bombeck

There were a million and one things that could have stopped it from happening. Actually, in the past 24 hours there were two, both of them significant.

1) I was told I will probably need surgery in the near future. Not life or death surgery, but minor surgery that will take me out of commission for a few days.

2) Our hot water heater decided to throw a hissy fit of spillage across the cellar, and the jury is still out as to whether or not we need a new one, to the tune of can-we-just-boil-water dollars.

But it’s a done deal.

I didn’t even tell my kids ahead of time. I probably won’t tell my mother until it’s over.

But let me get back to the beginning, which — lucky for you — means two weeks ago.

If you are reading this, you may have noticed I like to write. The truth of the matter is, my day consists of constant voices in my head — single sentences that describe the most unimportant moments with a bit of a twist. Sometimes they stay with me and sometimes I push them off, thinking they can’t possibly amount to something.

But everything amounts to something, or so the late Erma Bombeck, my hero of the humorous written word, would have me believe.

She got it. She understood that marriage and parenting and trying to do it all meant you either laughed or you cried, and it was all right to do both. She wrote about her life and times, good and bad, her husband and kids — with every step she took, she opened up a world of “Wow, now here’s someone who can make me put down the sharp objects and actually laugh about unfolded laundry or undefrosted dinner or unappreciated me.”

One recent afternoon when I was feeling particularly stressed or melancholy or some such emotion that led me to Google, I typed in these words:

I want to be Erma Bombeck.

Doesn’t that sound crazy? Isn’t this just asking for trouble — for proof that I should be thankful for my five readers (up from two) and let it go at that?

A link popped up right at the top of the screen.

The Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop.

Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

My reaction? I started to cry. Every part of me knew this was where I belonged, with my peers, the people who see everything as something to write about. I approached S with caution. Yeah, right. I told him about it while flooding the car with tears. He found a way — without selling any organs — to come up with the registration. The hotel and airfare will be the next step, but we will climb the step together, clutching onto the railings and trying not to fall backwards. In other words, without having to live on the streets to support my habit.

Registration was at noon today. I had been scouring the EBWW page for days, reading other blogs, comparing myself to winners of the writing competition that begins in January, watching for any sign that they might open registration even One Minute Early, just to throw us off track.

At 11:59 a.m., my Outlook calendar reminder blinked at me.

At Noon on the dot my cell phone alarm vibrated on my desk.

I opened up the web page and voilà — the link to register was there!

Quickly plugging in all the necessary information — name, address, credit card number, etc., I hit ENTER.



My fumbling fingers and my baffled brain were on different planets, but once I followed those pesky directions, third time was the charm, and finally the much anticipated registration confirmation arrived in my email.

That was a bit anticlimactic to say the least, right?

Here’s the thing.

I am not a risk taker. Sure, I sent a song that I co-wrote to Collin Raye’s agent. Yes, I asked Phil Vassar if he ever collaborated with an unknown when I got his autograph after a concert (by the way, I had a horrible cold and my nose was so red I looked like Rudolph, so he probably thought I was on drugs, and not from my pharmacist). And I will admit I have been trying to get Ellen DeGeneres to pay attention to my blog for a while. But other than those whimsical efforts, which didn’t amount to anything, I have a fear of flying — a fear of falling. A fear of failure.

Yet… I raised two girls to believe they can do anything they set their minds to, and I meant it. So why not believe in me for a change? They do, and so does the guy who has stuck by me for going on 30 years, even when I threatened to change the locks on the doors.

So folks, you are reading the blog of a person who didn’t let the broken hot water heater (water is boiling on the stove as I type), or the possibility of surgery (I will work around it), or her own doubts stop her this time. Whatever comes of this experience, I know it’s all about standing on the peak of possibilities and stepping forward into the unknown.

And I would like to think someday someone will say this of me.

At 53, she flew.

— Janine Talbot

Janine Talbot has been writing since before her eighth grade teacher accused her of plagiarizing a poem she wrote. She has published locally in guest editorials, and her lyrics received honorable mention in American Songwriter Magazine’s Lyric Contest. At 50-something and experiencing the empty nest (i.e., a spare bedroom with a desk), she is diving into the blogging world, sharing her stresses about her long-distance daughters, a spouse who lives for Sponge Bob marathons, a blind golden retriever and a cat she swears screams “Now” at feeding time. She blogs here.

Sold out!

Just four minutes before midnight, we sold out the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.  In 12 hours.  A new record.

Writers from around the nation and Canada will journey to the University of Dayton in the spring for a creative pilgrimage. For three days, we’ll laugh. We’ll be inspired and renewed.

Thanks for making history.  We’ll see you in April!

Registration opens for 2014 workshop

Online registration for the April 10-12 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of  Dayton has opened. Click on this link to register:

Want to laugh for three solid days? Soak in advice and encouragement from other writers? Maybe hang out with a few celebrities in the hotel bar?

Then join Phil Donahue, the Bombeck family and an amazing slate of keynoters and faculty for the 2014 workshop.

Is the workshop worth it?  Here’s what writers told us after the last one:

* “When I came to EBWW in 2010, I had a blog and some dreams. I came to EBWW in 2012 having had several essays published and with a book contract. Did EBWW get me published? No. But did it make me believe I could do it? Absolutely.”

* “Truly, this was the best conference I’ve ever been to for writers. Not only were the classes very informative, but my smile muscles hurt each night. …And a unique thing at this conference was the overall feeling of warmth and unity I felt throughout with kindred souls who were out to support each other and not compete.”

* “The desserts rocked.” (Everyone agreed on that point.)

We hope you’ll join us April 10-12 for what’s shaping up to be an outstanding workshop. Check out the keynoters, faculty and workshop sessions here.

The registration fee is $395 and includes all workshop sessions as well as two continental breakfasts, two lunches and three dinners.

Reflections of Erma