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

Erma Bombeck Wrighters' Workshop Banner

All pumped up

Jerry ZezimaI am not much of a couch potato, not only because my wife won’t let me eat potatoes on the couch while watching TV, but because I prefer to drink beer in the lounge chair.

But I am definitely a pump potato. That’s because I am hooked on a channel called Gas Station TV.

I discovered it recently when I went to the gas station and was transfixed by the TVs in the new pumps.

“If I could fit my lounge chair in the car, I’d drive it over here so I could sit in Lane 1 and watch TV all day,” I told Bree, the nice young man at the register.

“There’s only one channel,” he said, “but there’s a lot on it.”

“I know,” I replied. “I just watched the weather forecast — it’s supposed to rain — and I saw a car commercial, which was appropriate. The last time I was here, I watched the entertainment news and the sports update. A guy waiting to get to the pump must have thought I was taking too long because he honked his horn at me.”

The next time I needed gas, I took my own Nielsen ratings by polling viewers.

“I actually do watch TV while I’m pumping gas,” said Mike. “I like the weather, even though I’m outside and I already know what it’s doing.”

“Do you watch TV at home?” I asked.

“Not much,” Mike said. “But I like comedies. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is my favorite.”

“If a sitcom was on TV at the gas station, would you watch it?” I inquired.

“It might take a while,” Mike said, “but my car has a big tank, so maybe I could see the whole show.”

Melanie said she watches the weather.

“I like the news, too,” she added. “It’s nice to know what’s going on in the world. I just saw a report on gas prices.”

This piqued my interest so much that I decided to talk with Violet Ivezaj, vice president of business operations for Gas Station TV, which is headquartered in Detroit. I thought of driving there from my home on Long Island, New York, but I would have used too much gas, so I called her.

“You could have watched a lot of TV on the way out,” said Violet, adding that Gas Station TV started in 2006 at five gas stations in Texas and is now in more than 3,000 stations across the country.

When I told Violet about my ratings poll, she said, “I’m glad people like us. We offer a lot of programming, like ESPN, AccuWeather, CNN and Bloomberg. We’re driven to make pumping gas a good experience.”

“Driven?” I replied. “Nice one.”

“Thank you,” Violet said. “We want to have a positive impact.”

“I don’t think I’d use the word ‘impact’ when talking about cars,” I noted.

“Oops,” she said. “Let me put it this way: Millions of people are all pumped up over us.”

“They must be tankful for Gas Station TV,” I offered.

“Tankful?” Violet replied. “Nice one.”

“Thank you,” I said, adding that I have noticed that GSTV also has advertising for the products sold at gas stations, such as snacks and soda.

“We not only want to be entertaining and informative,” Violet said, “but we want customers to buy merchandise from our clients.”

“Have you ever been on Gas Station TV?” I asked.

“Not yet,” said Violet. “My husband and children think I should be.”

“Maybe you should get an agent,” I suggested.

“You could be on,” Violet said.

“That’s a great idea,” I responded. “If Gas Station TV starts a talk show, I could be the host. I can just imagine the promo: ‘Watch Jerry and get gas.’ ”

— 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 McClatchy-Tribune News Service and regularly appears in the Huffington Post. He’s written two books, 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.

Hysteria at haunted farm

Sharon L. CookI’ve never given much thought to seasonal haunted farms, although it’s something I would have loved as a kid. Back then, “horror” consisted of scary movies such as The Fly and The Blob. Because the special effects were primitive, we never saw the entire monster. What we saw was a woman, up close and screaming while a furry tentacle terrorized her.

Thus when I volunteered to accompany a church youth group to Connors Haunted Farm on a Friday night, I didn’t intend to participate. I envisioned eating cider donuts while the young people tramped through the cornfields. In fact, I told the Rev. Stephen, the group’s leader, that I’d recently had spinal surgery. No way could I engage in Zombie Paintball: diving into bushes and crawling through mud while being pelted from all sides.

Likewise the Hysteria Haunted Farm was out of the question. The last scary movie I saw was The Exorcist. It took me forever to get over it. I’ll admit I’ve become a sissy. Goosebumps is now my speed.

It’s too bad I didn’t research Connors Farm’s website beforehand. I would have discovered the Haunted Farm is “not for the faint of heart,” and that participants would tramp through an “authentic 17th century burial ground.” Had I read the back of the ticket, I’d learn that claustrophobics (and pregnant women) were warned not to enter.

Yet tickets had been purchased in advance, and they were not cheap. And after all, I had agreed to chaperone, along with Peter, the church sexton, and Joe, father of the teenage Sophia. I would look like a poor sport if I didn’t participate.

The farm’s haunted attractions are popular. We waited in a long line, our toes and fingers frozen by the chill autumn air. Those who’d paid extra stood in a VIP line and were whisked aboard. We church people persevered: The meek shall inherit the earth, or failing that, a seat on the Zombie Paintball truck.

Once seated, I relaxed when I learned I would be shooting at the zombies and not vice versa. It was fun pelting them as they popped up in the dark woods. I discovered I have good aim. The attraction was more fun than scary. I’d been worrying for nothing. How frightening could the Haunted Farm be?


After waiting in line, our group stepped inside the entrance to Hysteria’s Haunted Farm. Immediately we were plunged into a nightmare involving sound, strobe lights and a kaleidoscope effect. Crossing a rickety wooden bridge, I clutched the rope railing, fearing I’d fall overboard any minute. I couldn’t trust my distorted senses enough to proceed. I held onto the sleeve of teenage Demetri’s sweatshirt. “Don’t leave me!” I yelled above the roaring noise.

Somehow we made it over the bridge, only to be confronted by a bafflingly bizarre room. It was composed entirely of black-and-white checks. Inside was a Spiderman character, wearing a black-and-white checkered body suit. Flashing strobe lights made him appear to be everywhere: above and below us. “He’s in my head!” someone yelled.

What a relief to finally see Peter waiting at the exit. I stepped into the night air, exhaled and said, “Thank God that’s over.”

Immediately a freakish clown appeared at my side. “It’s only just begun,” he cackled, sounding like Vincent Price in The Fly. Unbeknownst to me, he was right. The Haunted Farm was a 40-minute attraction. More horror awaited, including a dank, smelly, cobwebby cellar, where grotesque creatures materialized from the mist.

“Why are they picking on me?” I wailed at one point.

“Because you’re old,” one of the kids said. “They know you’ll scream.”

And scream I did, so much that I was hoarse the following day. Yet in spite of my ordeal, I felt proud to have survived Hysteria’s Haunted Farm. In fact, I encourage other seniors to make the pilgrimage to Danvers. I guarantee it will sharpen — and shake up — your senses. Failing that, there’s always the cider donuts.

— Sharon L. Cook

Sharon L. Cook is author of A Nose for Hanky Panky A Deadly Christmas Carol and the upcoming Laugh ‘til You Die. She writes a humor column for the Salem News. In 2007, she received an honorable mention in the global human interest category of the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition.

How I came alive

Joty_T_AllisonCivil rights leader Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Everyone I have encountered over my life has told me I was chosen for something great.

Growing up, I battled with what that “something” was. As a child, I spent most of my time organizing rallies in my community and regularly participating in a local radio show that focused on youth empowerment.

As my community involvement continued, I dedicated my life to serving others. In retrospect, what I actually was doing was running from a dark past I had never confronted. At an early age, an older cousin exposed me to sex. Not only did he allow me to watch him have sex with females, he also began forcing me to have sex with him. I was eager for his validation, and I consented. As this dark story unfolded before me, I started desiring him far more than I should.

This infatuation turned into immense hatred after one day he defamed me in the presence of some of my cousins and friends. I felt betrayed by the only male who had ever seemed to care for me. I grew up avoiding thinking about this situation because I had no one to turn to, no one to talk to. Community activism is what I turned to as a way to escape this horrible situation. I feared that if anyone had ever found out about what he did to me, they would never believe me. And to be honest, I did not want anything to happen to him.

My silence began to eat up my insides like flesh-eating bacteria. As I grew older, I had to finally deal with this horrible past.

By doing so, I found out what made me come alive. I found out that there are many other African American young men who have suffered from molestation. Many of them kept silent about it for the same reasons I did.

I came alive when I decided not to hide this story and to commit myself to helping others escape from the same or similar situations. For a long time, I feared talking about this, but by doing so, I have now mentored hundreds of young men making important decisions in their lives.

My question to you, “What will make you come alive?” If you have not answered that question yet, I challenge you to find out. I challenge you to be fearless and zealous.

By answering this question, you will one day help save someone’s life or make a change in the world.

Just as I have come alive, so can you.

— Joty T. Allison

Joty T. Allison, a senior sociology major at Morehouse College, is a motivational speaker and the author of the upcoming book, Strengthen My Sight: Escaping Your Own Prison.

Ruffling my feathers
or why I resent being ‘hag-holed’

Helen ReeseIt wasn’t until I finished writing my novel Project Ex that I realized I had created a protagonist who was somewhat of an anomaly in the world of genre fiction.

Although 50-year-old psychotherapist Lydia Birnbaum’s romantic misadventures make her seem like a “chick” at times, she’s clearly no “chick” by genre standards. On the contrary, because of Lydia’s “advanced age,” Project Ex falls into a category of fiction called “matron literature.”

But wait, it gets worse.

Other common names for novels featuring female protagonists in their late 30s through 40s, 50s and beyond include “hen lit,” “granny lit” and — deep, cleansing breath — “hag lit.”

On the flipside of this labeling “system,” novels with male protagonists — of any age — have their own category. It’s called “fiction.”

I’ve attended a number of writers’ conferences and have discussed, brainstormed and continue to research how to navigate the rough waters of the publishing world. One thing I’ve learned is that figuring out which genre my novel fits into is very important indeed. I’ve also discovered that if I don’t define Project Ex by genre or sub-genre, there are plenty of people who will be more than happy to do it for me. And so, although there’s a part of me that wants to resist having it pigeonholed — or should I say, “hen-holed,” “granny-holed” or even “hag-holed” — into a genre whose very name sets my teeth on edge, it seems next to impossible to prevent that from happening.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Lydia Birnbaum would be horrified to hear herself described as a “hen,” let alone a “hag.” Having created her and understanding how vulnerable and sensitive she is, I feel an obligation to try and rescue her from being associated with the barnyard creature whose sad fate all too often is to end up on a dinner plate, not to mention the crone who tempted Sleeping Beauty with the luscious but deadly apple that put her to sleep for a hundred years.

Since this seems to be a dilemma that applies specifically to women’s fiction, isn’t it time for us to wake up, take charge and (if categorize we must), create new genres and sub-genres that more accurately and less pejoratively define us and our work?

— Helen Reese

Helen Reese recently published her debut novel, Project Ex. She’s also a contributor to Listen to Your Mother, a collection of essays released last spring that highlights motherhood’s joys and challenges. In addition to her day job as social worker, Helen has worked as a freelance writer and publicist.

My mom brain made me do it

Sara LindbergSundays are a time for reflection and giving thanks.

It’s also the day I tell myself I’m not going to be “That Mom” next week. Since that never seems to work out for me, here is a list of 13 things I did last week that prove I am “That Mom.”

What’s with 13 you ask? Well, it seems like everyone does a list using the number 10 (top 10). I also figured that 20 would make me seem like a real nut job, so I settled on my lucky number 13. So here it is in no particular order, the 13 things I did LAST WEEK that prove that I am “That Mom.”

1. Paid the kids delinquent lunch account online while sitting on the toilet at the gym.

2. LIED about why the kids’ drawings and work from school ended up in the garbage. “I’m not sure how those ended up in there. The babysitter must have done it.”

3. While shopping at Target, Hanna and I acted like Cooper didn’t belong to us. At one point during his wild behavior, I told him quite loudly, “I can’t wait to take you back to your mom and dad’s house.”Hanna and Cooper

4. Skipped entire paragraphs in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban thinking they wouldn’t notice. Let’s be honest. How many of you skip entire pages at bedtime because you are just so dang tired?

5. Getting dressed at the gym, I realized I packed Hanna’s underwear instead of my own. Not such a great feeling when you also have jeans packed for the day. To wear or not to wear?

6. Forgot to fill out picture forms on picture day. Went to the kids’ school that morning to get extras and when I got the stink eye that is only reserved for “That Mom,” I told the parent volunteer that the kids never brought them home.

7. Ate all the frosting around the outside of a cake and told the kids it fell on the floor and rubbed off.

8. Blamed Cooper for my body’s hideous release of gas that resulted from too much Safeway China Express. Desperate times = desperate measures. We were in a small waiting room.

9. Recycled the same lunch three days in a row and swore to Hanna that the sandwich was freshly made.

10. While searching on top of my dresser for their socks, BOTH kids found their baby teeth that the tooth fairy must have forgotten to take with her. In a desperate attempt to avoid a major traumatic event, I said that the teeth belonged to our dead cat and that I just couldn’t get rid of them.

11. Decided to try the old wives’ tale that says rubbing copious amounts of Preparation H on your stomach will get rid of stretch marks from childbirth. Seemed like a good idea until Hanna decided to read the label and asked, “Mom, what does it mean when they say relieves the pain and itching from bowel movements?”

12. Getting out of the shower, Cooper said, “Mom, look at these things I can spin. I’m going to call them the spinners” (testicles). I proceeded to tell him, “If you continue to spin them, they will be gone when you wake up.”

13. Despite all of my mishaps and not-so-great behavior, my kids still love me. I’m one lucky mom!

So there you have it — my list of 13. Looks like I better reconsider putting in for the “Mother of the Year” award.

— Sara Lindberg

Sara Lindberg is a full-time school counselor with two kids, ages 5 and 7. Her background includes a B.S. in exercise science and a M.Ed. in counseling. She has never considered herself a writer, just a woman with a lot of random thoughts in her head and access to a computer.

In defense of the revered spud

Molly StevensI grew up on an Aroostook County, Maine, potato farm where the spud was revered.

It represented nutritional calories on the table, money in the bank and the ability to buy my own school clothes after serving my annual sentence of forced child labor.

I’ve been upset about the WIC program’s sole exclusion of the white potato from fresh vegetable options, and am very proud of Susan Collins’ effort to gain its rightful place in the WIC grocery cart.

While I am excited about this breakthrough, I have some unresolved resentment about the maligning of the white potato. And I have a proposal that will exact some revenge for all the years of unfairness.

Let’s nominate some other vegetables to take their turn as forbidden WIC vegetables.

• Sweet potato — this haughty relative of the white potato has claimed superiority due to its orange color and lower carb content, parading its beta-carotine like a coat of arms. Behind closed doors, however, it has been making X-rated vegi-tales with jet-puffed porn star — the marshmallow.

• Broccoli — Nutrients are drowning in a molten sea of Velveeta.

• Green beans — “French’s green been casserole” has been impersonating a healthy side dish for decades. While we are at it, let’s ask Susan to sponsor a bill to make this recipe illegal.

• Onions — Let’s crack down on home onion ring labs where beer-battered ecstasy is being cooked up and served to carb-craving junkies.

• Tomatoes — You start out with recreational salsa on the weekend, and before you know it, these lycopene-laden beefsteaks are plastered on pasta and pizza every day of the week.

• Carrots — Known to be glazed, candied and incorporated into cakes.

• Celery — Pretending to be high fiber and lo-cal, these hypocrites embed themselves in platters of hot wings with blue cheese dressing.

• Spinach — One word: Salmonella.

• Eggplant — Don’t be fooled by this glossy purple perennial. I did a little research and was appalled to learn that they are a relative of tobacco, and their bitter-tasting seeds contain nicotinic alkaloids.  Are we willing to have our most vulnerable become hooked on this addictive nightshade?

• Cucumbers — How many summer picnics have you attended where this innocent vegetable has been corrupted by carbs in a macaroni salad?

• Beets — You can try to dignify this vegetable with Ivy League status, but this is one case where Harvard is just another word for fructose.

I think you get the idea. Every vegetable has its own dirty little secret if you dig deep enough. Let’s celebrate the digging of pure white potatoes, and hope that our homegrown tubers fully recover from this nightmare of discrimination.

— 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, where she skims over important topics, like her love affair with white potatoes and why she saves user manuals.

Ice cream therapy

Anne BardsleyIn my whole world right now, nothing brings me more joy than my grandkids. I’ve become one of those grandparents who turns into a five-year-old when they are around.

They bring the simple, childlike view of life front and center. I think I might need to start a college course to teach this. Forget trigonometry, chemistry and political science. This is much more important in the scheme of a rich life. I’m not saying, ”Don’t go to medical school and become a brain surgeon.” I just want young people to learn early what a rich life might look like. It’s not always about money.

I didn’t pay a therapist $200  an hour to pry open my mind to this realization. My husband and I took our granddaughters to an ice cream store and spent $9 dollars on ice cream. Yes, $9 dollars! Two pumpkin pie ice cream cups with pie crust, complete with whipped cream and two vanilla cones dipped in multi-colored sprinkles were our delight of the day.

We sat on the porch of Sunny Skies Ice Cream store in rocking chairs watching the world go by. The ice dripped and sprinkles fell onto laps, but no one moved to clean up the little messes. This was a “who cares about a little mess day?” The youngest wore her sunglasses upside down and smiled at everyone. The local sheriff arrived with his family and put his sunglasses on to match hers. We’d gone back to the past and now lived in Mayberry. I really like the past.

We sat for about 15 minutes, rocking gently in our chairs. “We should do this more,” my husband said. I agreed, “We can make this a tradition every time we visit.” The girls continued to lick their sprinkles off their melting cones, oblivious to the fast-paced crazy world out there.

“No, I mean at home, too,” he grinned. I rocked a little slower and thought, “This is one of those small moments that makes a sweet memory. I’m going to keep this one close.”

Pass the sprinkles, please.

— Anne Bardsley

Anne Bardsley lives in St Petersburg, Fla., with her “wrinkle maker” of a husband and two spoiled cockatoos. She’s still recovering from raising five children. She is so happy she didn’t strangle them as teenagers as they’ve given her beautiful grandchildren. She is the author of How I Earned My Wrinkles: Musings on Marriage, Motherhood and Menopause. She blogs at Anne Bardsley: Perfectly Imperfect.

John Stamos finds his Zen in rehab

Ann Rita DarcyRecently I was lucky enough to spend a weekend viewing the beautiful waterfalls in the State Park at Watkins Glen, New York.

Being certified seniors, Mr. Darcy and I got up very early and compounded the stereotype by attempting to take full advantage of the free breakfast at the motel. Since we found it was not available till 8 a.m., we were stranded and hungry in our dinky room watching a fuzzy television airing a show entitled “Good Morning in America, Today” or some such. The scrawl below the talking heads announced the wonderful news that an actor had “found his Zen in rehab.”

Naturally I wondered if the actor, John Stamos, had somehow misplaced his Zen but then thought maybe he had a religious conversion in rehab following his DWI in California. I have never seen his TV shows, but I understand he is especially beloved by a generation of women who grew up watching his character “Uncle Jesse.” I have nothing against the man; he seems a pleasant enough celebrity and relatively scandal-free until recently. I further understand that he has little or no control over what TV producers run in promotional teases.

Still, I hoped he might have something interesting to say about Zen Buddhism. Sadly and horribly and weirdly, his interview progressed to the point whereupon he and the host, Matt Lauer, started slapping each other in some sort of acting exercise and it all became unwatchable until it was thankfully time to eat the free breakfast. But it, nonetheless, reminded me of the first time I took an interest in Buddhism.

In high school I took a class in comparative religion taught by a man who also coached the football team. Not that these activities should, in any way, be mutually exclusive but Coach did say upon the introduction of each new religion, “Hey, I can’t help it if these people believe this stuff.”

Despite the questionable abilities of Coach, I did learn a little about the Buddhism originally from Nepal and its Chinese/Taoist influenced offshoot known as Zen Buddhism. The elimination of desire (the root of suffering) is achieved by following the “Eightfold Path,” which instructs one in right views, intentions, speech, actions, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration and leads one to right knowledge and liberation from the cycles of birth/death/re-birth.

Buddhism’s core principle is that you achieve Nirvana by ridding yourself of the suffering that is brought on by desire. Believing this added a new and not-fun layer of angst to my fading Catholicism by making me feel even worse about wanting anything, even if it was to be relieved of crushing migraines. (These headaches brought much betrayal. When St. Therese de Liseaux had excruciating pain, she at least had holy visions and I got nothing, which led to my feeling guilty about being bitter.) Still, the elimination of desire and a path of non-materialism remained a guiding force in my life and now makes me wonder why the term “Zen” has come to mean SELL anything you want.

For years I have seen ads for things such as “Zen cut jeans” and “Zen salads.” Jimmy Choo is advertising “Champagne Suede ‘Zen’ cut booties,” which look like toeless boots with stiletto heels. Incidentally, since the evolutionary purpose of feet is to enable us to walk upright, this seems to be a “step” in the wrong direction.

There is a “Zen Salon and Spa” in Mission, Texas, that is offering a “Zen conditioning treatment.” I did not quite have the nerve to call them up and ask about the depth of their commitment to Buddhism.

Donna Karan has an entire line of products to buy called “Urban Zen.” The ultimate irony is that Zen Buddhism espouses non-materialism and yet has become a marketing device.

Another item I found online was a “Zen Cut-out Collar Necklace.” It is out of stock. That an object is advertised online and doesn’t really exist, at least for purchasing, is well, kinda Zen!

The fact that Zen rarely discusses sin, offers no punishment other than that of reincarnation, does not consider itself to be a religion despite having nuns and priests and gladly accepts Christians, Jews and atheists alike into its welcoming fold may have caused it to mean just about anything. The incomprehensible nature (to most Westerners) of Zen lends itself to many interpretations.

That is a sorry excuse for using a philosophy to sell things. Please consider the following: “Jewish flavored ice-cream,” “Existentialist-cut lawn furniture” or “Mango-Methodist salad dressing.” Is it just that “Zen” is a cool word and fun to say? Just as “fascism” has come to mean any ideology or political system that you don’t like, “Zen” has come to mean something that represents clean lines, (like Calvin Klein!), is a little upscale and urban but also down to earth and simple, something that requires deep concentration but also empties the mind. OK, I give up. It means everything and nothing.

If you really want to contemplate all this, go back to the very beginning. Yes, the beginning of this blog. Go to Watkins Glen, sit on a rock by one of the 19 lovely waterfalls and just listen.

All the best to Mr. Stamos, who remains entirely innocent of promoting “Zen.”

— Ann Rita Darcy

Ann Rita Darcy is a nurse and grandmother who lives on Long Island.

Reflections of Erma