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Sharing the laughter

rajeanWant to experience (or relive) some of the high points of the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop?

Check out the workshop’s YouTube channel. We’ve posted seven new videos, including excerpts from keynote talks by Roy Blount Jr., Amy Ephron, Leighann Lord, and Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff. You can also enjoy Wendy Liebman’s stand-up opening at Attendee Comedy Night, excerpts from Gina Barreca’s Erma 101 session and a conversation with the Bombeck family, playwrights Allison and Margaret Engel and actress Barbara Chisholm following the one-woman play, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End. These segments on our YouTube channel join 14 stand-ups by brave, funny attendees who closed the workshop with humor and panache.

You can also peruse the joyful photos of attendees and images from the classroom, podium and dinner table of the talented writers who taught and inspired us.

Who needs Netflix? You can binge right here.

Yes, this IS my real job

Ever since my memoir Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism was published, formerly pleasurable social gatherings feel like death by a thousand paper cuts. (Yes, that’s the title. You don’t like it? Oh, because tomatoes are a fruit, not a vegetable? Thanks, that’s helpful.) Next question?

Liane Carter

A writer! What have you written that I’ve read?

Beats me. What do you read?

Can you make any money doing that?

How’s that lawyering thing working out for you?

Is your book selling?

I’ll show you my tax returns if you show me yours.

Well, have you tried writing a bestseller? You should go on Oprah.

Hmm, hadn’t thought of that.

Can you send me a copy?

Right after the plumber fixes my sink for free.

My friend’s brother’s great aunt just finished a book and needs an agent. Can you give her yours?

Sure. While we’re at it, would you ask your boss to give a job to my cousin you’ve never met?

I’ve always wanted to write, but I’m too busy. Maybe when I retire.

Me, too. I’m going to take up brain surgery.

Hey, you can’t believe the life I’ve led, you should write your next book about me!

Are you Steve Jobs? Amelia Earhart? Moses? Then I don’t think so.

Could you read my manuscript and let me know what you think?

Doc, I’ve got a swollen tendon, could you take a look?

I’d love you to write for me! I can’t pay you, but it’ll be great exposure!

Writers die of exposure.

I don’t have time to read.

Too busy keeping up with the Kardashians?

I didn’t buy your book, I’m just going to borrow my friend’s copy.

I’m not ordering in your restaurant; I’ll just nibble something off my friend’s plate.

Haven’t read your book yet. I’ll have to let you know what I think.

As my Aunt Helen said when I told her I’d sold my second story to a national magazine: “I hope I like this one better than the first.”

I read your book. It’s well-written for a memoir.

As opposed to what? A ransom note?

Is your memoir based on your own life?

Why, no. It’s about my evil twin Lilith.

Do you ever write romances?

I bet you wouldn’t ask that if I were a man.

Are all writers alcoholic?

Yes. That’s why you’re meeting me at a cocktail party.

Aren’t most writers crazy?

Of course. Why any sane person would willingly closet herself for years at a time doing lonely, vein‑opening work with no guarantee of professional recognition or recompense is beyond me.

— Liane Kupferberg Carter

Liane Kupferberg Carter is the author of the memoir, Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism, (yes, she knows tomatoes are a fruit, not a vegetable but that’s still the title) from Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Parents Magazine, PBS’s Next Avenue, Brain, Child, Scary Mommy and Purple Clover.

The other female in our bed

Janie EmausI would rather have come home from my spa weekend and discovered my husband in bed with another woman than with a two-month-old Labrador retriever curled between his legs.

The woman would have been gone within seconds.

As for that puppy? She was here to stay.

“Don’t you just love Ziva?” my daughter asked several days later, as I sprayed yet another carpet deodorizer promising to bring “pine freshness” onto our living room carpet. “Isn’t she adorable and fun?”

I didn’t find anything adorable about chewing up every paper product in our house: coasters, napkins, books. Or anything fun about moving items with the slightest hint of wood pulp to higher altitude.

“But you have to admit, Mom, a puppy is the best thing for Dad.”

On that I had to agree with my daughter.

The previous year had been tough for my husband. After being diagnosed with a rare brain tumor (ironically more prevalent in dogs), he survived an eight-hour surgery and then received his certificate from a seven-week radiation treatment.

During that period his best friend and business partner of three decades discovered he had liver cancer. He wasn’t so lucky.

After his friend’s passing my husband spent hours watching TV. He lost his passion for cooking. He quit playing his guitar. He hadn’t seen a sunrise or sunset in almost a year.

Once Ziva entered his life, everything changed.

During those first weeks, he got up every few hours to let her outside. I’d often find him in the morning stretched on a lounge with Ziva cuddled on his chest. The sun rising over the back fence signaled play time.

He began taking her for walks. He brought her to the pet store to pick out her collar and leash. He spared no expense on the finest puppy food. He took her to obedience school where he learned to obey her commands.

The TV went unwatched. Our kitchen became filled with savory aromas. In the evenings, we watched Ziva run circles through the backyard.

As the months progressed, Ziva grew from 20 to 50 pounds. Her culinary tastes expanded to include plastic such as gift cards, inhalers and pens. And for desert she loved stuffing. And I don’t mean the kind found inside a turkey.

There went our patio chairs, our swing cushions and her heart-shaped bed.

And little by little, there went my heart. How could I not love this precious puppy who had brought my husband back to me?

These days if you should enter our home in the evening, you’ll find all three of us in bed together. Snuggling, loving and taking care of each other.

— Janie Emaus

Janie Emaus believes that when the world is falling apart, we’re just one laugh away from putting it together again. She is the author of the time travel romance, Before the After, and the young adult novel, Mercury in Retro Love. This essay won an honorable mention in the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop writing competition. She has an essay in the best-selling humor anthology, You Have Lipstick On Your Teeth and is proud have been named a 2013 BlogHer Voice of the Year. To read more of Janie’s humor, you can find her every week In The Powder Room. To learn more about her crazy life, visit her website www.JanieEmaus.com.

Poppie’s French connection

 

Jerry ZezimaOf all the Romance languages, the most beautiful, in my humble opinion, is Pig Latin.

Take this simple phrase: “Hiya, toots!” Translated into Pig Latin, it becomes: “Iya-hay, oots-tay!”

Eloquent, isn’t it?

The second most beautiful Romance language is French, in which I am not, unfortunately, conversant. But I am learning it with a certain je ne sais quoi (translation: “Hiya, toots!”) with the help of my 3-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.

Chloe is learning French with the help of her daddy, Guillaume, who is from France, a magnificent (magnifique) country that I visited five years ago with my wife (ma femme), Sue (Sue), and some other members of our family (la famille) for the wedding of Guillaume and our younger daughter (fille), Lauren (ditto).

Now their daughter, Chloe, is teaching me (moi) French.

I want to speak it better than I do Spanish, which I took for eight years in high school and college and still can’t hold a decent conversation. I know only two phrases: “Cerveza fria, por favor” (“Cold beer, please”) and the natural follow-up question, “Donde es el bano?” (“Where is the bathroom?”)

That is why I am sure Chloe will be muy bien (sorry, I mean tres bon) in teaching me French.

According to Lauren, when Chloe went for a doctor’s appointment recently, she said to the receptionist, “Je m’appelle Chloe,” which means “My name is Chloe.”

“Did she just speak French?” the stunned receptionist asked.

“Yes,” Lauren replied, though she should have said, “Oui.”

The next time I saw Chloe, I said, “Je m’appelle Poppie.”

She smiled, no doubt at my pathetic pronunciation, and said, “Poppie!”

I was babysitting her and thought it was a good time for a French lesson.

“Bonjour, Chloe,” I said.

“Bonjour, Poppie,” she responded.

That was pretty much all I knew. But I was about to get a crash course. Chloe loves books and always wants me to read to her, so I was not surprised when she handed me a book starring her favorite character, Peppa Pig. The title: “Une Journee Avec Peppa” (“A Day With Peppa”).

Yes, it was in French.

If you read Chloe a book in English and stumble over a word, she will make you repeat it.

“My God (Mon Dieu),” I thought, “this is going to be terrible (terrible).”

I began to read: “Ce matin, Peppa se reveille.”

I had no idea what I just said, but it didn’t matter because Chloe didn’t correct me. I thought, however, that the word “reveille” meant Peppa was in the Army, though the drawing on the page showed that she was in her bed at home and was waking up at 7 o’clock in the morning.

It was obvious from subsequent drawings that the little pink porker was getting ready for school.

I trudged on: “Et prendre le petit-dejeuner tous ensemble, c’est encore mieux. Parole de Peppa!”

Chloe smiled and turned the page, a clear indication that my reading was d’accord (OK).

When Peppa got to school with her classmates, there was this line about the teacher: “Madame Gazelle, leur maitresse, est fantastique!”

Then Peppa went home for lunch: “C’est pizza et salade au menu!”

Afterward, she went to the park with her friends: “L’apres-midi, Peppa retrouve ses amis au parc.”

At dinner, Peppa’s father, Daddy Pig (Papa Pig), made his famous soup (fameuse soupe), after which Peppa had to brush her teeth (“apres avoir mange, il faut toujours se laver dents”) and go to bed (“bonne nuit!”).

Through the entire reading, Chloe didn’t stop me once, so I felt confident enough to add, “The end,” which I didn’t know in French (la fin).

But that was all right because Chloe paid me the ultimate compliment: “Merci, Poppie!”

I had passed my first French (francais) test. One of these days, with Chloe’s help, I will speak it fluently.

Then, of course, I will teach her Pig Latin.

— 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.

Watt the heck happened?

Judy Clarke“The bulb broke off in the socket and you can’t get it out,” said the wizened helper at our local True Value hardware store. I’d walked in holding the socket and the broken remains of a three-way bulb aloft in a plastic baggie.

“Well, yes,” I said, “but that’s not the problem.” He was already heading to the front desk to get a screwdriver. Quick as a bulb burning out, he had the shards removed.  “What happened is, I put in a new bulb, after the bulb I’d just replaced two days ago burned out. When I screwed the newest bulb in, it flashed, then exploded. Glass sprayed all over. It looked like fireworks.”

He stroked his chin. No place but in a local hardware store would a clerk stroke his chin. Nor for that matter, help without being asked. I love local shops.

The solution was, buy a new socket assembly. I bought that and a bag of the peppermints I can only find at Christmas. The guys at the counter laughed at me. “Well-l, I didn’t really come in here to buy candy,” I said, attempting to make excuses for myself.

The next day I decided I could replace that socket myself. I consulted our 1975 edition of How things work in your home and what to do when they don’t.  Can’t beat its concise directions and easy-to-understand drawings. I attached the twisty little copper wires onto one thingie, then the other twisty copper wires to the other thingie. Put in a new bulb, and POW. Three in two days. I was running out of bulbs. I called son-in-law Martin. He and Les were on their way out — they’d stop by in a few minutes.

When I showed him how carefully I’d followed the book’s instructions, he looked at me with a grin teetering on the edge of laughter. “That’s not the ground,” he said, “this is. You shorted it out.” I mistakenly wrapped one of the copper twizzlies around the switch instead of the terminal. Not good.

Within seconds he’d done it properly. Helpful sons-in-law are as good to have as a helpful hardware man. We have another good son-in-law in Bill, but he lives too far away for these drive-by fix-its I seem to need more and more often these days.

— Judy Clarke

Judy Clarke is a wife, mother of two daughters, grandmother to two grown grandchildren, reader, writer and blogger in southwest Virginia. Her two non-fiction books, Mother Tough Wrote the Book and That’s all she wrote, can be found on her friends’ and family’s shelves, and she’s working on a novel, But why? (That’s the title of the novel, not a question to self). She’s currently a finalist in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ 2016 writing competition (in the category of online, blog, multimedia under 100,000 unique visitors).

Short story

 

Aline.WeillerI stand a mere 5’ 2.” This, I’m reminded of daily. Last week, three people offered assistance as I struggled to hoist my luggage onto the overhead rack on the train. My kitchen cabinets house items I can’t even pretend to grasp, prompting pleas to my teenage boys. My house has step stools in every closet, the garage and kitchen; they are my gateway to both garden gloves and granola.

Grocery shopping is the ultimate challenge — I’m forever on the hunt for tall passersby of the Good Samaritan ilk to grab organic ketchup, shelved beyond my reach. And I regret to admit, I still step on bottom racks for a boost, though I’ve been reprimanded ad nauseam.

But there are more small girl problems. General admission seating at concerts is taxing, at best. In family pictures, I’m the sole adult lining the front row with nephews and nieces. Movie theaters pose seeing the screen obstructed by the head of an average-sized adult. My car’s sun shades barely block rays and adjusting shower heads demands Olympic prowess. Not to dismiss the ultimate bummer — people use my head as a banister. Yes, being small has forced me to “McGuyver” my way to solutions, like the famed secret agent from this ’80s action-adventure television series.

Additionally, I was understandably mortified when my younger sister surpassed me by three inches in middle school. When I questioned this phenomenon, my mother tried to console me, saying I’d be as tall as both grandmothers, who had, incidentally, already began their literal descent into old age.

Lately, though, I’ve embraced my height as a gift, and have reframed it to celebrate its perks. Children like me — I’m little, like a fun-size Snickers. I can nap on the couch, no problem. Heels are always an option, and in sneakers, I can negotiate crowds with fleeted finesse. Long-legged people are forever grateful when I take the backseat or give them the aisle on planes: I’m portable. I’ve gotten carded way past the appropriate window. Petite clothes don’t require costly alterations, and I’m name tag level at reunions, when classmates remain stumped, searching memory banks for lost identities. I can even wear kids’ Uggs and get called cute a lot.

And other good news — I sport a big personality in a small package, and consider myself concentrated, not less than.

— Aline Weiller

Aline Weiller’s essays have been featured on the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop blog, Brain, Child Magazine, Scary Mommy, Your Teen and Skirt, among others. She’s also the CEO/Founder of Wordsmith, LLC — a public relations firm based in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Follow her on Twitter @AlineCWeiller.

The bizarro commencement speech

Mark J. DrozdowskiCollege 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 MagazineBoston 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.

Nice work if you can get it

Jerry ZezimaWhenever 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.

Reflections of Erma