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Sometimes a word or two says it all

Steve EskewI recently returned to my hometown of Grand Island, Neb. In due time, I headed for a nightclub on the edge of town that has been in business for over 50 years, affectionately known as the Snake Pit. Back in my youth, when running water was a novelty, I worked after school busing tables in that joint. The owner and I have been pen pals all these years.

During intense introspection that only a narcissist could appreciate, I came to realize that the Snake Pit housed many personalities that I’ve conceived both consciously and subconsciously as models for many of the characters in my writings. One guy in particular.

Positioned like a wine cellar down under a four-story country hotel, the Snake Pit has actually changed very little in 50 years. Still clean. Still fun.

The proprietor and my longtime pen pal is a gal named Myrtle. She’s 86 now and she reminds me of TV-star Betty White. Sharp, loaded with energy and funny. After I entered the joint on the first night of my hometown visit, I introduced myself to the host/bouncer and asked if Myrtle was around. As he swaggered off to fetch her, I gazed at the diners, mostly a crowd of 60-somethings. Some were dancing to the band’s 1940s music.

Someone behind me said, “BOING!”

Grinning, I turned around and looked into Myrtle’s mischievous eyes. Whenever we wrote to each other, our greeting would begin with the word, “BOING!” That had been the signature sound emitted most nights in the early 1960s from a six-foot-five, 350-pound slot machine addict named Mortimer O’Malley.

Whereas most the Snake Pit’s patrons came clad in casual dress up, Mortimer consistently showed up in clean blue-jean overalls and a red baseball cap. He would come roaring into the rear of the hotel parking lot every night on a dilapidated orange tractor. His driver’s license had been permanently revoked but, most nights, he could successfully (thus, legally) pilot the tractor down the county dirt roads.

When Mortimer uttered a complete sentence, he would stutter, so he pretty much preferred to express himself with one-syllable words like “BOING!” As he played the one-armed bandits, the drunker he became, the louder the “BOING!” As the night moved onward ever onward and Mortimer grew woozier ever woozier, he  would variate his loud “BOING!” to a lighter “BONG!” and his last utterance before he would stagger out and plant his enormously fat fanny on his tractor was a high-pitched “BING!”

One night, he brought Myrtle a load of fresh farm eggs , dropped them on the floor, slid across the room in the slick mess, screaming “BOING!” But before he could say “BONG!” or “BING,” he fell hard, racking his head on the dance floor. He died instantly. No blood. We speculated that his heart had stooped beating right after he said his final: “BOING!”

After his body was removed, no easy task I grant you, I had the chore of cleaning up the broken-egg mess. I’m ashamed to admit it but all I could think of as I scooped up the broken eggs was “Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.”

Most people liked Mortimer, but no one really mourned his death. His Irish family held his wake at the Snake Pit. His wake was a joyous affair. At one point, Myrtle’s husband  Maynard and I stepped outside of the nightclub to sneak a smoke. We noticed crows perched on the trees above. In a giddy mood from celebrating our man Mortimer’s life, I yelled at the crows “CAW!” Maynard repeated the word: “CAW!

We got the giggles.

Eventually, it became our salutation to each other. Throughout the years, whenever  Myrtle and I talk on the phone, Maynard takes the phone out of her hand, says “CAW!” I answer “CAW!” and that is the extent of our conversation.

And, wouldn’t ya know, as I was standing there reminiscing with Myrtle the night of my recent visit to the Snake Pit, I heard a loud “CAW!” It was the now-88-year-old Maynard. I countered with “CAW!” He grinned and walked away.

Smiling at Myrtle. I said “BOING!” She said “BOING!” and I walked out.

And people say I’m gabby. Sheesh!

— Steve Eskew

Retired businessman Steve Eskew received master’s degrees in dramatic arts and communication studies from the University of Nebraska at Omaha after he turned 50. After one of his professors asked him to write a theater column, he began a career as a journalist at The Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs, Iowa. This led to hundreds of publications in a number of newspapers, most of which appear on his website, eskewtotherescue.com.

The simple beauty

Scary Mommy Thanksgiving ProjectThe Scary Mommy Thanksgiving Project began three years ago, with just a handful of families.

A handful of mothers who confessed not being able to afford Thanksgiving dinners and a handful of readers who volunteered to help them. Nobody was trying to save the world; we just wanted to be able to make a difference in one family’s life.

And then the magic happened.

More families came forward with their struggles and even more families pitched in to help, donating anywhere from a dollar to several hundred. Over four hundred families celebrated a Thanksgiving dinner they otherwise would have gone without and Scary Mommy Nation (now a 501(c)3 charity) was born.

Every day, Scary Mommy is proud to showcase a variety of viewpoints and perspectives from mothers everywhere. Underneath all of our differences – behind all of that which too often divides us – the wonder of a mother’s love for her children is universal. And what can be more instinctually maternal than wanting to be able to nurture and provide for your family?

That’s the simple beauty of the Thanksgiving Project. Our children – and our struggle for their well-being – is what connects this community. To date, more than 4,500 families have benefitted from the Thanksgiving Project. Last year alone, we received 2,765 applications and were able to fulfill each and every one. It’s time to do it all again.Welcome to The 2014 Thanksgiving Project!

If you are involved in blogging or social media, please help us spread the word.

If you have or know of a business who would like exposure and good karma, learn more here.

If you can afford to help a struggling family, please donate here. Fifty dollars buys an entire dinner – you can, of course, give less and be grouped with other donors, or give more and sponsor multiple families. (You can also mail checks to: Scary Mommy Nation, PO Box 20866 Baltimore, MD 21209)

Thank you for supporting the Thanksgiving Project, however you are able!

— Jill Smokler

New York Times’ best-selling author and domestic satirist Jill Smokler, creator of the popular parenting blog Scary Mommy, sought out a number of EBWW writers for hilarious essays for her newest e-book, Scary Mommy’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays (Simon and Schuster). She’s also the author ofMotherhood Comes Naturally (and Other Vicious Lies) andConfessions of a Scary Mommy. Her nonprofit organization, Scary Mommy Nation, has provided Thanksgiving dinners to more than 4,500 struggling families in the past three years. Jill has more than a million followers on Facebook and Twitter alone, and her website averages 30 million page views a month.

Love hurts, cake helps

Muffin Top: The MovieIn a recent survey, 96 out of 100 women say they think a bad thought about their bodies every day, and romantic comedy “Muffin Top: A Love Story” says those other four women are lying, or in a coma.

“Muffin Top” is a hilarious, romantic antidote to our culture’s Photoshop madness, and its core message is this: Be happy now, not five pounds from now. The movie’s fans say, “Muffin Top is not just a movie; it’s a movie-ment.”

Wait, how does a movie that isn’t even out yet have fans?

Crowdsourcing, driven by social media, is creating an audience revolution. Last fall, “Muffin Top” fans saw the movie’s trailer and came together to:

1. Create a nationwide red-carpet tour;

2. Create screenings in their own towns;  and

3. Create Girl’s Night IN Video-On-Demand parties to raise money for Girl’s Inc., the national girls’ empowerment organization.

Using Kickstarter, “Muffin Top” tapped into the female audience frustration as movie theaters are flooded with white male super heroes in spandex. The campaign to create a multi-city red-carpet tour with the film’s stars went viral and raised 122 percent of its goal because people embraced the film’s slogan “Love Hurts, Cake Helps.”

Now Muffin Toppers are using audience empowerment platform Tugg.com to create Girl’s Night Out screenings at their local multiplexes. For more information, click here.

“Muffin Top” is about a women’s studies prof who gets dumped and goes into a body image shame spiral, eventually learning that the first step to finding true love is loving yourself.  I co-wrote and directed the film, which also stars David Arquette (“Scream”),  Retta (“Parks and Recreation”),  Dot Marie Jones (“Glee”), Haylie Duff (“Napoleon Dynamite”), Gary Anthony Williams “(Key and Peele”), Melissa Peterman (“Fargo”), Marissa Jaret Winokur (Tony winner, “Hairspray”),  Diedrich Bader (“Napoleon Dynamite”) and Maria Bamford (“Arrested Development”).

“Muffin Top” is distributed by Mar Vista Entertainment and will be on all Video-On-Demand platforms Nov 4, simultaneous with the Muffin Top Red Carpet of TRUE Beauty tour, the Tugg.com screenings and the “Girls’ Night In” VOD parties. You can download the free party kit here.

View the movie’s trailer here. For more information, visit Muffintopmovie.com and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

– Cathryn Michon

Cathryn Michon is a best-selling author, stand-up comic, actress and Hollywood screenwriter and director — as well as the creative catalyst behind Muffin Top: A Love Story. Her husband, W. Bruce Cameron, co-wrote the screenplay. In 2014, both were part of the faculty at the EBWW.

Give tired clichés a makeover

Katrina Kittle classEBWW faculty member, creative writing teacher and novelist Katrina Kittle is offering a three-week fiction-writing webinar through OnLiten, starting Nov. 6.

Here’s what former EBWW director Matt Dewald says about Kittle as a muse and guide for writers:

“Katrina Kittle is as deft a teacher as she is a writer. In her classes, students get even more of her than makes it onto her pages. She is warm and wickedly funny, plus fiercely smart and deeply knowledgeable about not only the writing process, but also about the demands and expectations of the writing life and the world of publishing.

“Students leave her classes better prepared and more confident as they pursue their own goals as writers,” he said.

To register, click here. Cost is $60 for the three online classes.

Children at play

Tracy DeBloisI was an only child and I really hated it. I knew kids fought with their siblings, and it wasn’t all let’s play pretend, but there were times when they had someone to play Connect Four with, and that’s what I envied. Perfection is only entertaining for so long.

Because of this, I swore I would have more than one child, and I do. I have four ranging from eight to 11. So you can imagine how insane it makes me when they whine that there’s no one to play with. When I insist they play with each other, they go through an interesting series of predictable phases.

Phase 1 “There’s no one to play with!”

Right, I endured three pregnancies (including one twin pregnancy), so I would never have to hear anyone say that. Your argument is invalid.

Phase 2 “Uggghhhh, I don’t want to play with my brother!”

Yeah, see above. Tough.

Phase 3 The Picking Stage

Resignation has set in that I am not going to whip up a playdate. One goes and finds another and begins taunting, poking, prodding. Not quite what I had in mind, but one child at least is amused. The other one keeps yelling, “STOOOOOOOOOPPPPPPPPPUHHHH.” This phase lasts anywhere from 10 minutes to forever.

Phase 4 The Playing Stage

They either find a game, or the physical interaction turns into a wrestling match. I am generally less thrilled about the latter, because it usually happens in my living room full of sharp corners, hard surfaces, and breakable lamps. I kick them outside or to the basement, but I’m grateful they’re playing. Unfortunately this phase tends to be short, as it almost always disintegrates into…

Phase 5 The Attempted Murder Stage

One kid does something a little too enthusiastically and the other one decides it was a deliberate attempt to inflict injury, and retaliates in kind. Thus we escalate quickly to the next phase.

Phase 6 The Revenge + Tattling Stage

The gloves are off now. Each feels they are entitled to retribution for the wrongs done them. They never try to hurt each other seriously (if that were their goal, I presume they would just beat each other with one of our many baseball bats). However with each offense comes a heavily italicized tattle — “He hit me!” “She threw the airplane right at my face!” I let this go until I’m afraid they may really hurt each other, however unintentionally.

Phase 7 The Time Out Phase

This isn’t really a time out in the conventional sense — it’s really just separating the two doing battle, sending them to their corners, as it were. One may be sent to his room, another may be hustled off to run an errand with Dad. Either way, they’re given time to simmer down.

Eventually, however, the time out ends and they are once again drifting through the kitchen whining, “There’s no one to play with!” And so it begins again.

Just shoot me.

— Tracy Deblois

Tracy Deblois has a husband, four children, a dog, and a full-time job. Having grown up on the East coast, she and her family relocated to the West coast almost 10 years ago. She writes to maintain the tenuous grip she has on her fragile sanity. Her blog at Orange & Silver is intended to provide a humorous glimpse into the never-settling snow globe that is her mind. She spends her time answering questions about the location of her children’s belongings, and enduring the searing injustice that Season 5 of Downton Abbey aired in the UK months before it will be shown in the U.S. She can be found at orangeandsilverblog.blogspot.com, and on Facebook.

The real meaning of deer hunting

Noah Vail and Mary FarrIt’s deer hunting season here in flyover country. That means every buck stalker in possession of a Cabela’s credit card has slipped into blaze orange wear and donned a camo headlamp. It’s a taxidermist’s dream and high season at the Buck Knuckle Saloon.

“So, what’s the meaning of this annual quest for a multi-pointed hat rack?” I asked Madam. She rolled her eyes, as she does when I ask a culturally insensitive question. Then she told me a hunting story that made perfect sense.

Madam’s father, a retired judge, and three of his Depression Era cronies hatched a plan to make one last trip to deer camp, for old time’s sake. So, on opening day, they loaded Alden Jacobson’s Dodge minivan with the required, cigars, toilet paper, playing cards, cribbage boards and a rolling cooler full of groceries. Alden planned the menu, and appointed retired police detective Walt Shwank to help cook. Old Ed Witzig was in charge of tending the fire and the mousetraps. The judge volunteered to manage artillery. The four friends then drove north to their favorite hideout, Camp Rum Dumb.

Upon their arrival, they unloaded the perishables and aimed for the woods. Only the judge and Alden carried guns, a blessing for the deer and other hunters. Armed with binoculars, Ed and Walt tottered down the fire lane munching egg salad sandwiches and regaling one another with Camp Rum Dumb tales. There was the time Ed fell out of his deer stand and landed on a drowsy bull snake. Or, in 1965 a skunk family moved in under the kitchen sink.

A couple of hours passed with no deer sightings. So, they turned back toward camp to set up housekeeping. Alden and Walt cooked up a meatloaf and mashed potatoes, while Ed and the Judge played a round of gin rummy. After dinner, a crackling fire in the fireplace and a drop of Jack Daniels topped off a perfect stroll down memory lane. At midnight they all retired to their sleeping bags.

Then, about an hour later, a clatter arose from the kitchen.

“What is it?” whispered Walt, groping for his glasses. “Who’s in here?” he demanded. No response.

The Judge clicked on his flashlight to have a look. “What’s going on out there?” he shouted. A startled weasel with a salad fork in its mouth glared back at him.

“Well, I’ll be,” croaked Ed. “He must have liked the meatloaf.”

Nobody moved a whisker, including the weasel. Finally, the deafening silence ended with an equally deafening KABOOM. It seemed that Walt had packed his old service revolver and chose this moment to shoot a hole in the ceiling. Maybe he thought the weasel would see the moon through the opening and find its way out.

No such luck. The weasel darted off the counter but not out the hole. Then came a chorus of, “Shoo, shoo! Get out!” as the weasel rounded the kitchen and rocketed through Alden’s duffle bag. Given the rumpus coming from Ed’s direction, it was clear that the weasel had made it into his sleeping bag with Ed. This was followed by proof that a 75 year-old man can run like Jessie Owens when faced with a fork-wielding weasel.

I was almost afraid to ask Madam what happened next, but I did.

“Well, Noah you’ll be glad to know that the weasel made it out alive from Camp Rum Dum,” she reported. “And, believe it or not, old Ed suffered nothing more than a chill due to his sprinting out the door barefoot in his skivvies.”

Me oh my, I was also glad to hear that Walt’s gun made it back in its holster with no further mishaps. And so, the four old friends had a fine time deer hunting without firing a shot — more or less. The weasel lived. Camp Rum Dumb suffered slightly, though small wildlife appreciated the new cabin entrance. Judging from this story, I concluded that the fun of the hunt had very little to do with bagging a buck.

— Noah Vail

Noah Vail and Mary Farr have collaborated on a book, Never Say Neigh: An Adventure in Fun, Funny and the Power of You. Noah, author, philosopher, humorist, gin rummy ace and all-around “good news sort of guy,” blogs hereNever Say Neigh won an honorable mention in the 2013 Paris Book Festival.

12 tips to write for laughs

Judy GruenWriting for laughs is seriously hard work, but the payoffs are priceless.

If you can make someone laugh with your words (because you intended to, not because your writing is so God-awful they can’t help but spurt coffee out their noses), you’ve done a great thing. You’ve brightened someone’s day, and improved their health, unlike those miserable wretches who make their living by writing traffic citations or delivering subpoenas.

Why not try your hand at the humor game? You’ll have fun, and if you don’t have fun, at least you’ll have more appreciation for those who do make you laugh. Here are my 12 tips to make your readers laugh out loud.

1. If you want to write funny, read funny! Channel your inner comic writer by savoring the greats. My favorites include British comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse (author of the Bertie Wooster series) and master essayist S.J. Perelman, who also wrote screenplays for the Marx Brothers. Their inventiveness with the English language is as astonishing as it is hilarious. Erma Bombeck could make even losing keys and a broken answering machine funny; Steve Martin is a favorite for his imaginative genius. I mean, could you have thought of writing a column called “Times Roman Font Announces Shortage of Periods”? It’s in his collection, “Pure Drivel,” and it’s enough to make me mad with jealousy. I also love Christopher Buckley, whose politically satiric novels include “No Way to Treat a First Lady” and “Boomsday.”

2. Keep it clean. Today, lots of comedians and humorists have confused explicitness with sophistication. Relying on bodily functions or an overemphasis on sex is usually more crass and junior-high than smartly funny. And also, what’s with the profanities? Hammering an audience with four-letter words isn’t funny; it’s deadening. Clever humor aims higher than waist-level.

3. Grab ‘em at the beginning. People have very short attention spans. Reel them in at the first sentence so you don’t lose them to their Facebook page, and keep your story moving.

4. Make your humor relatable. People love it when they feel you are writing about their lives, and gently self-deprecating humor is one of the most effective ways to achieve this. For example, “I discovered that I had a textbook case of ‘Congenital Fraidy Cat Syndrome.’ I knew it: my expanding medical knowledge was slowly killing me.” Or, “I had my fat tested today. It came back positive.” (Both lines by yours truly.)

5. Show your strength. Self-deprecating humor isn’t loser humor. Write with the kind of punch that reveals your fortitude to survive life’s worst agonies, including being on hold with your health insurance provider.

6. Be sharp, but not mean. Good humor has a point of view, but shouldn’t be downright nasty.

7. Don’t shy from “evergreen” topics. Misunderstood spouses, unreasonable bosses, know-it-all teens and why bad contractors happen to good people have been funny since lions roamed the Colosium, but a fresh angle is essential.

8. Find your distinctive voice. Use great writers for inspiration, but don’t be an imitator.

9. Know your audience. Don’t poke fun at lifestyles of the rich and famous in a piece you’re writing for Town & Country magazine, or gun rights for a piece in NRA Monthly. Study your target markets, then see if your world view and humor make you a good match for them.

10. Write what you know. Your writing will be more natural, convincing and funnier this way.

11. Be colorful and specific. Writing that you have 87 pair of shoes is funnier than saying you have a closetful. Talking about your need for “Jumpy Java” in the morning is funnier than talking about your need for caffeine. The more specific you can be, while throwing in a bit of exaggeration, ups the humor ante.

12. Get me rewrite! Outstanding writing may look effortless, but it’s not. Four or five rewrites are not unusual before your work really shines. Let a piece rest for at least 24 hours before looking at it again. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll find to improve after you’ve both marinated in it for a day.

— Judy Green

Judy Gruen’s latest book is Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping (CreateSpace 2012). The book is being made into a musical by TroupeAmerica and will premier in January 2016.  Judy also writes the Mirth & Meaning blog on judygruen.com.

To my son

Teri RizviAfter I helped you move a few clothes, a coffee pot and some cherished books into your Marycrest Hall room at the University of Dayton, I unfolded a letter you wrote to us last spring.

“Now is a crucial time to voyage off to a new world full of wonder and spirituality,” you wrote in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade us to allow you to travel to Tibet to study with the monks for a few months before college. You were just 17, and already expressing a curiosity about the world and your place in it.

I then pulled out a letter I wrote to you for your high school senior year time capsule and laughed at the childhood memory that popped off the page. “Do you remember this crazy and imaginative exchange we once had? Everyone knows you shouldn’t accept a ride from a stranger, but you thought there must be at least one exception to this rule. ‘If I were lost in the woods with no one around and a limousine pulled up, would it be acceptable to have a limousine ride?’” you asked as I drove you to school.

You have shown an inquisitiveness about the world and a spontaneity for life that books alone cannot teach. Some would say you’re overly confident and too impulsive. You’ve always believed you’ve had all the answers and certainly know the exceptions to the rules. You skirted that line with your teachers throughout school.

Yet as you start your first year at the University of Dayton, you find yourself full of questions. And you’re worried.

“You’re 18 and you don’t know what you want to do? That’s the best thing I’ve heard you say,” said political science professor Mark Ensalaco over lunch. “Ask tough questions,” he advised. “We need more people asking excellent questions instead of giving meaningless answers.”

In your first few weeks as a college student, you read “the most profound thing” you’ve ever read in Margaret Strain’s Writing Seminar 1. Mike Rose’s essay, “I Just Want to be Average,” opened your eyes to how one person who believes in you can change your life.

You helped your Saudi Arabian roommate write a paper. As part of the social justice learning-living community in your dorm, you traveled to Edison School to tutor a fourth grader in basic arithmetic.

You’re already exploring study-abroad options in Africa and are quick to grab a Nerf gun for stress-relieving, heated battles that break out randomly on the dorm’s second floor.

And while you’re not Catholic, you were visibly moved by Father Jim Schimelpfening, S.M.’s words at first-year orientation Mass at the University of Dayton Arena. “I hope you learn how to ask questions, the questions that really make a difference, the questions that change lives,” he said.

“We’re not a world at peace. Are you willing to be a peacemaker? We’re not a world with universal health care. Are you willing to hear the cry of the poor and be the voice for the voiceless? Who do you say you are? How you answer that question sets the stage for everything.”

Who do you say you are?

The answer isn’t part of a pop quiz in physics, won’t jump off the page of a reading assignment.

It’s a question that will weave through every class, every friendship, every experience during your college days — and beyond.

It’s time for you to voyage to a world you will create, a new world full of wonder.

— Teri Rizvi

Teri Rizvi is the founder of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and executive director of strategic communications at the University of Dayton. This essay will appear in the winter issue of the University of Dayton Magazine.

Reflections of Erma