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The barn cat recruiting dilemma

The Landlord has appointed me Commissioner of Cats. I suspect this promotion has something to do with the dearth of regular barn cats in our little home sweet home. It also surprised me, since I’m no expert in barn cat recruitment. In fact, the last time I tried to interview a working tabby she tossed me a withering glance before reclining wordlessly in her COSTCO box.

One would think Mr. and Mrs. Landlord could round up a couple of feline freelancers given today’s tough job market, but no. Months of interviews have produced only a handful of uppity city kitties. These urban varieties prefer flirting with the boarders rather than managing vermin.

Anyhoo, much as I enjoy all creatures, great and small, my knowledge of kitty culture could use a boost. However, this is not due to my lack of trying. For example, along with 118 thousand others, I Like Henri le Chat Noir on Facebook. I also attempt to make meaningful conversation with Madam’s Fluff Muffin Cat. In fact, I recently queried the Fluff Muffin about what he would like for his birthday.

“Nothing,” he chirped rather dismissively.

“Perhaps you could use a new hat or a game of kitty Monopoly?” I persevered. “How about your very own goldfish named Ted? Maybe an iTunes gift card or a field mouse soufflé?”

Another withering glance shot my way. The Fluff Muffin then airily announced that he preferred napping in his COSTCO box to nibbling on a gourmet entrée endorsed by a horse. I was beginning to wonder if the COSTCO brass knew what a hot commodity they had on their hands with these boxes.

“You mean you want nothing more than this teeny box that once served as home to canned peas?” I asked, realizing we had a recurring theme here. Clearly some marketing guru caused these cats to treat COSTCO boxes as if they were upholstered in mackerel.

And did I happen to mention Fortuna Farm’s three retired cats? We call them retired because they spend the day lolling around the office picking their teeth and exchanging recipes for rabbit fricassee and sautéed dove. Though they regale one another with old chipmunk hunting stories, we have yet to see any evidence of truth in this.

So, it’s safe to say that I face a daunting task recruiting cats with proper credentials. It’s also time for me to enroll in a cat sensitivity seminar. Perhaps I can learn why the retiree named Fang ignores my offers of carrot cake, yet regularly reclines on my backside.  It’s a mystery.

— Noah Vail

Noah Vail and Mary Farr have collaborated on the newly published 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 here.

Daddy diaper duty

My husband and I thought that 24 years of marriage and nearly just as many years of my home day care had prepared us for anything.

Our children were grown; our youngest daughter was 19.  Well, actually, our youngest daughter is now our oldest one. We recently adopted a baby girl.  Because we knew the birth mother, a friend of our daughter, we were there for the delivery and brought our newest daughter home directly from the hospital the following day.

You would think that the life experience my husband and I both possessed, as a result of raising two children, would give us the wisdom to handle any situation with grace and dignity.  Of course, myself, the mature wife and mother of this partnership can handle almost everything. My husband, on the other hand, did not quite have a grip on caring for our new baby daughter, and I learned certain things can unravel even a strong, well-trained military man after all.

He was taking care of the newest member of our family while I attended a writer’s group.  While, dropping me off at the library, where I meet with other aspiring writers, he saw a presentation on investments going on and decided to listen in.  Shortly thereafter, he noticed a rather nasty odor emanating from the baby.  He took her out to our van knowing said odor meant daddy diaper duty time and not wanting to trust just any restroom’s cleanliness.

Our newfangled diaper bag is equipped with a vinyl changing pad.  He laid her on it and proceeded to change her.  Thinking he was doing just fine, as he unwrapped the diaper and used it to clean up some of the mess, he folded it together while attempting to grab a baby wipe from those dastardly parent- proof packages!  The only problem with this scenario was that Kimberlie was not finished using that diaper yet and promptly began doing so on the pad!  While my husband tried to gingerly clean this up, she decided to upchuck most of her bottle from the previous feeding, missing the pad.  We used to tease that she was an erupting volcano with as much as she could spit up.  And as if this was not enough, and Daddy was not already near panic, she then emptied her bladder all over both previous messes.  Imagine how 8 pounds of infant could completely unravel my big, tough military man and you have to see the irony and the humor.

All my husband could say when I joined him after the writer’s group ended was that she got him really good.  He did not want to tell me exactly how, until we were well out of earshot range.  I can’t imagine why he didn’t want to share this hysterical scene with the members in my writer’s class.  It would have made their day, as it was much funnier just seeing it in mind’s eye, knowing how most fathers handle diaper duty anyway.

It’s okay though, as he has forgiven Kimberlie.  Daddy has learned that even the advent of years does not prepare him to handle certain duties all at once.  We will continue growing older and wiser together, with a little one to keep us young, laughing and definitely on our toes.

Only a husband, who truly loves his wife, would consider renewed parenthood again at this stage of our lives.  I am also sure that for a brief moment during this episode he had his doubts about why he had considered it, but then one beautiful, heart-melting smile and coo from his new daughter told him why.

For some reason though, he now balks and attempts to always get out of diaper changing duty. Love you babe!

— Beckie Miller

Beckie Miller began writing after the death of her son who was robbed and murdered in 1991. She has served as chapter leader of Parents Of Murdered Children (POMC) in Phoenix for the past 20 years and has won numerous awards for her service to crime victims. Married to husband Don for 41 years, she has three children — “one who soars in heaven,” son Brian who died at age 18; a daughter Christie, 36; and a daughter Kimberlie, 16. “Writing not only saved my life through an emotional roller coaster of a grief like no other, but it gave me an avenue to sing my son’s silenced song,” she says.

The long pink line

I would finally have something in common with Katie Couric.  No, not the $14 million salary or Park Avenue penthouse.  Not the size 4 figure or the Christian Louboutins. I would have a colonoscopy.  And stay awake.  Okay, not on national TV, but in the gastroenterology office.

“None? No anesthesia, nothing?” asked Dr. Kim, the anesthesiologist, eyes wide. “In years, I never see this.”  I wanted to say It’s not you, it’s me — my rigid control issues, my hard-nosed tough-girl, I-can-take-it, wimp-averse attitude, me and my strange high tolerance for pain.  Most of all, it was my bottom-line desire to be conscious when a man with whom I am only slightly acquainted is about to insert a lubed-up rubber thing into my nether regions.

“I’m just anal that’s all,” I blurted, not thinking.

Those two words, “even death,” listed under “Complications-Rare” on the consent form, didn’t help.

I asked Dr. Grossman, my calm and methodical gastroenterologist, who would soon be gazing deep into my entrails:  Did they want to knock me out for reasons of pain, safety, or to guarantee ample relaxation was available in the sphincter region?   I was fully prepared to explain that I’d pumped out two 10-pound kids without an epidural, gotten cavities filled with no Novocain, frequently entertained sledgehammer migraines sans meds, and once, after a half-ton horse used my foot for a footstool, I had my big toenail extracted by a first-year intern who left the Lidocain behind.

Instead, I simply said, “I have a rather high tolerance to pain.”

“Without anesthesia, it’s quite uncomfortable,” Dr. Grossman said in his usual patient manner, just like when he said my GI symptoms could mean indigestion, ulcers or cancer and why don’t we just schedule a little procedure?  “But it’s perfectly safe to proceed without.”

“Well, I’m sure other people have done it,” I say.

Dr. Groissman nods.  He is about 70 years old. “Yes, there have been a few over the years.  One or two.  We pump in air and the probe moves up pretty far and goes around bends.  If you change your mind, Dr. Kim can have you asleep in less than a minute.  Because it is uncomfortable.

I lie on my side while the nurse clamps on a heart monitor, blood oxygen finger clasp, and blood pressure cuff.  Twenty-four inches from my eyes is a television monitor. Here, I’ll live out my late-night penchant for reality-TV involving medical mysteries, scalpel-wielding doctors, and flapped-open flesh.

The nurse switches the set on, but says, “You should probably close your eyes.”

And miss the show?  No way, nursie.

“Relax,” Dr. Grossman says.  I unclench my cool naked glutes, and feel the chilly lubed tube with attached micro-mini camera as it begins its rectilinear journey along the passage to the final resting place of my most recent Indian meal.  Soon I am on a fantastic voyage, through a privileged portal most people’s eyes will never peek at, as on the screen before me, I watch the probe travel a path normally trod only in the opposite direction by products which are thankfully not pixally present.

I am vaguely aware that the tunneling trajectory has angled upward and perhaps even sideways, and I notice that the nurse is rhythmically unspooling the looped tubing from its perch which reminds me of my garden hose holder at home, and that I’m starting to get that feeling I get when maybe I ate a few too many of my kids’ string cheese rods.  But it’s all certainly well within the realm of only slight uncomfortable-ness; fact is I’d call it only a ripple, a twinge, a funky flutter.  I’m more interested in the screen.

“Doc, can you narrate for me?” I ask.

“Are you watching?” Dr. Groissman inquires, a warble in his normally even lilt.

“This is fascinating,” I say as the screen shows a fleshy undulating soft tube lined with spindly writhing reddish pink spidery webs.  I’m on a smooth subway excursion, as the camera slithers around bends, illuminating as it goes, a shifting view of mauve specks, maroon spots, and a mélange of what look like intricately constructed blobs, mud puddles and dust bunnies.

I’m alert, awake and aware that I’m getting a look inside my own body, into myself, and I want to know everything.  “Can you tell me what all those structures are?” I ask.

“Oh, that,” Dr. Groissman says. “That’s just stray fecal matter that didn’t completely evacuate.”

So I’m watching plops of poop pass by when it occurs to me that I’m, how shall I put it, uncomfortable.  But I’m coping, exceedingly well.  I’m not a queasy sort.

“There’s the problem,” Dr. Groissman says, pointing to something attached to the lining of my colon, which resembles a bulbous stunted semi-erect penis.  It’s swaying slightly and looks a little like what I see when I shine the flashlight into the back of my son’s throat when he’s got strep. The polyp.

When Dr. Groisman says, “We’ll just snip that out on the way back down,” it’s almost like getting the preview to the next episode of Nip/Tuck.

But wait, something is amiss.  Not only is something snaking around down there, but it’s leaving concrete-filled balloons in its path.  I’m starting to feel as if someone is pumping air deep into my innards, which in fact someone is, as Dr. Grossman so eloquently explained.  And I am, how shall I put it?  Uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable.

“How are you doing?” Dr. Groissman’s quiet voice asks.  I nod, since I can’t chance speaking.  He asks Nurse to feel my stomach.   She reports, “still soft.”

I’m thinking soft is good, as in relaxed, but soft means not nearly done, and plenty of room for more air.  My navel is now so far out in front of me I resemble the woman on the sextuplets show, and from the bottom of my ribcage down I am so rotund and inflated, I think I may combust.

“Still room,” Nurse reports.  Another air bong hit.

“How are you doing?” Dr. Groissman asks.

How am I doing?  How about engorged?  Glutted?  Stuffed up like a Thanksgiving Tom?  I’m no longer able to watch the TV, and find myself staring at the brass fittings on the door jamb and I suddenly remember my carpenter cousin once told me there is a particular kind of hardware called a butt hinge.  My body is growing, groaning and I’m wondering if this is how those guys in the hot dog eating contests feel, and I can’t imagine anything better this minute than to stick a pin directly into the skin of my own abdomen.

“Oh, I’m OK.  It doesn’t hurt, but it’s…”

“Uncomfortable?” he asks, this time a little less Marcus Welby and a little more like Dr. House starring in Sweeney Todd.

Dr. Groissman, I decide, needs a major league thesaurus.  He needs to know that uncomfortable is not synonymous with excruciating torture, harrowing agony, or crushing misery. Uncomfortable, to me and the folks at Roget’s, means an annoying but tolerable little twinge, a mild but endurable distress, an incommodious but middling irritation.  Uncomfortable, for example, does not usually suggest the need for six Motrin, a heating pad, a quick painless death, or Mom.

Had Dr. Groissman noticed my hand gripping the table?  Or my squeezed shut eyes?  Or my left foot flexed in a way it should only when one is muttering, yes, yes?

“We have more air to pump,” he says. “But you’re one-third through, farther than anyone else has gone without anesthesia.”

I love a well-mannered older gentleman who can lie gracefully.  While I am still in semi-control of my thoughts, I realize I may have to turn in my membership card to the Bradley childbirth society, because although I agree that human can withstand unmedicated labor once they understand their bodies are designed to stretch, I doubt even a gecko would lie still if a white-coated human shoved a bamboo rod up its cloaca.  The Bradley rulebook is also mute on whether human abdomens are designed to accommodate three basketballs, two grapefruit and the Staples easy button.

“More air please,” Dr. Groissman requests, and when I sneak one final glimpse at the TV screen, I notice only a gooey, glutinous, gross mess.  Nurse, remote please.

I search for Dr. Kim, catch his eye. He is close by, as promised. He is smiling, sort of.

“You want now?” he asks.

“Yes, yes,” I cry out, flexing my toes, flailing my hand, and trying to clutch his sleeve or arm.  But I aim badly and grab the poor man’s belt, pulling him hard against the table.  “I want.”

Three years later, when I need a second colonoscopy, I plan to nod and smile and be quiet when the anesthesiologist gets to work, though I do ask, casually I think, about the type of anesthesia they have planned.

“It’s Propofol, you know, the Michael Jackson drug,” a nurse explains, and while I want to slap her dopey face and explain that this is not at all reassuring to anyone who understands that the King of Pop you know, died while taking that drug, I don’t.

I sign the waiver and smile and nod and extend my arm. I may have a high tolerance to pain, but I apparently don’t do that well with uncomfortable.

— Lisa Romeo

Lisa Romeo writes for magazines, newspapers, journals and essay collections, including The New York Times, O-The Oprah Magazine, Sweet!, BarnstormWhy We Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives (Seal Press). One of her humor essays, about posing for photos to accompany her article about gaining back weight, is included in Feed Me: Writers Dish on Food, Eating, Weight and Body Image (Ballantine). She teaches in the Rutgers University Writing Program and lives in Cedar Grove, N.J., with her husband and two sons.

Daydreaming senior galls drivers

Having always despised driving, I finally quit cold turkey after I retired and moved from Omaha to New York City, a town deemed pedestrian-friendly.

How could I lose? I’ve always loved walking. Do I miss driving? Sure I do. Like I miss dandruff. Believe me, I served a tortuous sentence behind the wheel. Iʼm quite the deep thinker who’s always been blessed (and cursed) with a twisted subliminal twin I call Subby who romps, rages and rides the rails inside my beautiful mind.

Subby simply takes over while I ponder world-saving issues. In my driving days, Subby, not I, piloted the vehicle, allowing me to explore my deepest thoughts. While gliding through the mean streets of Omaha, I would constantly find my pensive little self to be the innocent recipient of pointed remarks, delivered by a number of the townʼs surplus of sourpuss drivers. Obviously, they resented an authentic thinkerʼs searching the deepest recesses of his redundant mind. Invariably interrupted while cogitating, I would “come to” as someone honked and flipped me the bird. Genius is so rarely understood in its own time.

My God, what was the big deal with these incensed simpletons anyway? Itʼs not like my alter ego drove recklessly. For 40 years I was never directly involved in an accident though, in retrospect, I do recall hearing a lot of crashing sounds behind me after absently speeding through intersections. But alas came the day when three cars crashed into my Dodge Durango during a moment of powerful contemplations. With the ambulance siren blasting while toting my bleeding body to the ER, an epiphany popped into my nimble noggin: Go East, old man, go East. Soon thereafter, I threw in the bloody towel, retired from driving forever and headed to the Big Apple.

Now as a New Yorker, I’ve pathetically morphed from misunderstood driver to what some might deem masochistic pedestrian. Wouldn’t you know, New York drivers immediately enforced their zero-tolerance policy for old fogies meandering the Big Apple in a state of entranced reflections. If New York drivers find my walking style so annoying, think how their own precious multitasking grates on my nerves. Forget eating, chatting, texting and sexting while driving. Recently, I watched in horror as a young man painted his toenails while zigzagging down Seventh Avenue.

I concede defeat on both walking and driving. I need a new challenge. One of my heirʼs suggested my taking up a “safer activity, such as skydiving.”

Ah, flying through the uncrowded sky with no one to distract my thinking. Skydiving? Yep. Definitely. I need something less risky than driving and walking. Fur sure. I need skydiving.

Like I need diarrhea.

— 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,

Coffee with Erma

During the Jurassic era when I was attending Stephens College with all the other dinosaurs, our commencement speaker at graduation was the well-known humorist Erma Bombeck. I remember wondering who she was and thinking that she was incredibly funny. Little did I know how fortunate I was to witness this icon of humor deliver the most entertaining graduation speech I would ever hear.

Fast forward to 2011 when I decided to dust off my diploma and put my writing skills to use in the form of a blog. I thought of Erma immediately and devoured every Bombeck book that I could find. She has been my muse and is the inspiration behind every blog post I write. When a friend asked me what famous writer I wished I could meet, it took less than a nanosecond to decide. Erma’s famous quotes have stuck with me over the years, so I pulled some of my favorites from the archives for a coffee conversation with Erma Bombeck.

Me: “Erma, I’ve admired your work for so long. Every blogger out there wants to emulate your writing style. I was terrified of hitting that ‘publish’ button when I wrote my first post. Were you nervous when you sent out your first article?”

Erma: “It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else.”

Me: “That’s right. For the first few months, I felt like I was swimming alone in the murky waters of blogging until I started meeting other writers.”

Erma: “Dreams have only one owner at a time. That’s why dreamers are lonely.”

Me: “It’s hard on my family, too. They understand I need time alone in my room to write. But it sure would be nice if they tossed a sandwich and a bag of chips at me every now and then so that I wouldn’t starve to death while sitting at the computer all day. Maybe that’s their new diet plan for me. Seriously, though, when I look around my messy home, I feel bad about neglecting all the chores that need to be done. It’s a problem when the dog has eaten all the wooden legs off the sofa because no one remembered to feed him.”

Erma: “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving!”

Me: “That’s just it; the guilt is killing me.”

Erma: “Housework, if you do it right, will kill you.”

Me: “My mother was an incredible housewife. She cooked from scratch, scoured the house until it shined and ironed everything, including the bedsheets! Mine resembled failed origami projects shoved into the abyss known as our linen closet.”

Erma: “Ironed sheets are a health hazard.”

Me: “The only time I don’t feel guilty about letting the housework go is during football season. I figure if my husband can’t be bothered with mowing the lawn for a few weeks, I can skip vacuuming the carpets for awhile…”

Erma: “If a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead.”

Me: “He already spends too much time on the couch. I’m afraid one of these days I’ll come home and all that will be left of him will be a chalk outline on the sofa and a remote control. He really needs to get out and jog.”

Erma: “The only reason I would take up jogging is so that I can hear heavy breathing again!”

Me: “Tell me something, Erma. You faced quite a bit of adversity in your life with polycystic kidney disease and breast cancer. How were you able to write such powerful humor during those years?”

Erma: “Laughter rises out of tragedy when you need it most, and rewards you for your courage. …If you can laugh at it, you can live it.”

Me: “My laughter and pain are often intertwined. I’m either slipping into insanity or suffering from the raging hormones of menopause.”

Erma: “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”

Me: “You certainly found a way to bring laughter into this world. It amazes me that you started off by writing weekly newspaper columns from your small bedroom in Ohio, then quickly rose to be a popular humorist nationwide. Fourteen years later, 900 newspapers were publishing your column. That’s an incredible accomplishment!”

Erma: “I didn’t fight my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian.”

Me: “A lot of bloggers can relate to that statement. I think we’re all searching for that little slice of fame through our blogs.”

Erma: “Don’t confuse fame with success. Madonna is one. Helen Keller is the other.”

Me: “I love that you were able to find humor in your everyday experiences as a wife and mother. Some of my favorite stories are the ones about your children and how they drove you crazy!”

Erma: “Insanity is hereditary. You can catch it from your kids.”

Me: “You had three of them — you should know!”

Erma: “Never have more children than you have car windows.”

Me: “Especially if your fourth one is a belligerent 17-year-old who likes to make potato bombs and burn plastic milk jugs in the house to set off the fire alarm at an ungodly hour.”

Erma: “A child needs your love more when he deserves it the least.”

Me: “It’s hard to control my temper around him. I’m trying to be patient and understanding but sometimes I just want to sell him to a traveling circus…or duct tape him to a chair until he turns 21.”

Erma: “It’s not until you’re a mother that your judgment slowly turns to compassion and understanding.”

Me: “I’m still waiting for that concept to kick in. If you could start all over again as a young mother, Erma, what changes would you make?”

Erma: “Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy, I’d have cherished every moment, realizing that the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle. …I would have sat on the lawn with my children and not worried about grass stains. …I would have talked less and listened more. …and when my kids kissed me impetuously, I would have never said, ‘Later. Now get washed up for dinner.’”

Me: “And if you had your whole life to live over again?”

Erma: “There would have been more I love you’s and more I’m sorry’s. …I would have cried and laughed less while watching television, and more while watching life. …but mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute. …look at it and really see it. …and never give it back.”

We sipped our coffee in silence after that, then shared a few more family stories before it was time for her to leave. As I thanked her again for spending the afternoon with me, she popped open a flowered umbrella and headed out into the rain. I watched her disappear behind the silvery mist of water falling from a bruised sky and knew that I would never forget this remarkable, enchanting woman of humor.

— 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.

Footloose and not so fancy free

I read in The New York Times this week that nostalgia is a form of depression. I had never thought of it that way. I always enjoyed thinking of the past. Then I realized that the reason I enjoy thinking of the times when I was younger is that I still feel that way inside.

Today, I listened to a song from the days when I was footloose and fancy free. I pictured myself then, and compared the former me to the me that I am now, and I started to sag.

I remembered when my legs seemed endless, and wearing short shorts was a given. I thought about the nights when I stayed up with my friends, eating chocolate donuts by the dozens, never once considering calories. I remembered driving around town, past boys’ houses, hoping to catch sight of one. I remembered when I knew how to dance and didn’t know how to cook.

I remembered chasing after toddlers, never once getting tired. Being able to find just the right puzzle piece at the same time I folded laundry. Making endless lunches before getting in the car for the commute to an office where I wore suits and pearls.

I remembered walking on the beach in a very small bathing suit, and not having to suck my stomach in. Having skin so young that makeup was like gilding the lily. I remembered when size 10 was a bit too roomy, and when I wore mini-skirts without a second thought.

I remembered parties with other young marrieds, when nobody had to get a babysitter or be home at a specific time. When getting three hours of sleep a night was voluntary.

I thought about the way my husband looked when I met him — and how cute he was with his skinny legs and head of blonde hair. I remember being charmed by his jokes and feeling lucky to be thinner than he.

I remember having parents.

Good grief. I am going to cancel my subscription to the Times.

— Molly D. Campbell

Molly D. Campbell writes a blog from her pantry, often in pajamas. She is a two-time Erma Bombeck Writing Competition award winner, winning honorable mentions in both the humor and human interest categories in 2010 and 2012. She recently self-published Characters in search of a novel, her first book.

One last time for Roger Ebert

HARTFORD, Conn. — Chicago’s late movie critic-cum-blogger Roger Ebert has hit one last national writing contest ball out of the park. The longtime Chicago Sun-Times writer, who died of complications of cancer last April at age 70, won first place for online columns or blogs on large websites in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists annual column contest.

Winners were announced June 29 at the awards banquet of NSNC’s annual conference, held this year in Hartford, Conn.

Below are listed all the winners and any comments their judges made. Honorable mentions were not chosen for all categories. Judges did not write comments for everyone.

Category A: General Interest — over 50,000 circulation

First Place — Tom Rademacher, The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press. Judge’s comment: Thomas displays a quality of insight and a sense of compassion that helps bind every reader through their basic sense of humanity. There is power in his writing and the compelling stories filled with overcoming and hope that he chooses to tell. I am certain his work is among the best read in his newspaper as it should be.

Second Place — Dave Lieber, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Judge’s comment: In his watchdog column, Dave displays courage and a willingness to challenge injustice and illogic wherever he finds it. He also gets positive results for others, which is always a hallmark of everyone who expresses their opinion for a living. And his work shows a willingness to even challenge himself and his own fallibility. He writes very well and fulfills his mission in a way deserving of national recognition. Were but more columnists blessed with his sense of outrage over even small injustices.

Third Place — Rick Telander, Chicago Sun-Times. Judge’s comment: Rick Telander is an absolute master at turning sports (and its celebrated figures) into very real people with all the human frailties we all possess. His well-written entry lays out many hypocrisies and weaknesses as well as the successes by those who give of themselves to the at-risk youths of Chicago. Exemplary work and richly deserving of national acclaim.

Honorable Mention — Katie Harrington, The State News, Michigan State University. Judge’s comment: Katie writes one of those intensely personal columns filled with those bright spots that prompt her readers’ to know exactly what she is thinking and feeling. She has the skill and the knack for the column she writes and her readers are fortunate to have her messages.

Honorable Mention — Marney Rich Keenan, The Detroit News. Judge’s comment: Marney’s very well written columns are filled with human interest and relevance. her subjects are everyday people doing their best to make life a better experience. She most certainly deserves to be recognized by peers and readers for her outstanding work.

Honorable Mention — Phil Reisman, The Journal News, Westchester, N.Y. Judge’s comment: Philip’s columns show all the elements necessary for a quality column worthy of national recognition: humor, compassion and a willingness to challenge the establishment. Those are always a terrific combination for everyone who writes opinion.

Category A judge — Mike Masterson, independent correspondent and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Category B: Humor — over 50,000 circulation

First Place — Bob Dyer, Akron Beacon Journal. Judge’s comment: My choice of first place was Bob Dyer, a thrice-weekly general interest columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal, who is not saddled with the title “humor columnist.” But his three submitted columns were the freshest and funniest of the entries. He worked with the material he met that day, such as when he was drafted to substitute for the food editor as a judge in a pickle tasting contest. “Don’t be too easy,” the food editor coached. “Don’t be afraid to be the East German judge.” In another column about April being National (Your Cause Here) Month, Dyer wrote, “‘April is Primary Immunodeficiency Awareness Month!’ Yes, with an exclamation point. Woo-hoo!” On a proposal to combine a race track with a casino — a racino — Dyer quotes a reader who said, “I’m against all forms of racinoism.” And in a column about a 76-year-old granny gone wild in frustration at a local Sears store, when a plus-sized clerk told her to calm down or she’d have a heart attack, granny responded, “You’ll have one before I do, Fatso.” Three policemen were dispatched to the scene. Notice that Dyer’s best lines come from reporting the words of others.

Second Place — Brian O’Connor, The Detroit News. Judge’s comment: Second place honors went to a Detroit News business page columnist. Brian O’Connor, who spiced up a dry story about an online survey reporting that 36 percent employees moonlighted at other jobs by citing the experience of the society reporter for the Houston Chronicle who was fired by the paper for working nights as a stripper. “Stop and think how [(the fired reporter's] mother must have felt reading those stories about her daughter’s tawdry second job,” O’Connor wrote.” All this time she thought her daughter was just a stripper.”

Third Place — Samantha Bennett, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Judge’s comment: Third place went to Samantha Bennett of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who offered timely advice of what NOT to say in front of your boss including “I am so hammered,” and “As soon as I finish my parole, I am SO outta here.” In another column she wove a Star Wars fantasy using prescription drug brand names as characters such as “Dark Emperor Xanax of Nexium ” and 16-year-old Yasmin Epipen, a girl from the Adderall System.”

Honorable Mention — Tracy Beckerman, Gatehouse Media. Judge’s comment: Honorable mention to online Gatehouse News Service “Lost in Suburbia”: columnist Tracy Beckerman who detailed her months without facial expression due to saying yes to botox injections.

Honorable Mention — Jim Shea, Hartford Courant. Judge’s comment: Honorable mention kudos to veteran Jim Shea of the Hartford Courant who fantasized about sexy-voiced Siri, the genie of the Iphone, as well as what he’d do with all the money he didn’t win in the Powerball jackpot, and whether SAT’s will now be required before admission into quality Manhattan kindergarten programs.

Category B judge: Clark Deleon, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and college instructor

Category C: General Interest — under 50,000 circulation

First Place — Kevin McKeever, The Advocate, Stamford, Conn. Judge’s comment: Kevin McKeever’s beautifully-written columns range from the serious and emotional to amusing. A sad and thoughtful account of the death of a high school classmate went beyond a newspaper’s typical and predictable Memorial Day coverage. His lessons on losing, from experience as a Mets fan and a former Little League baseball player, transcend sports. The good-natured jabs at his beloved home state are a delight.

Second Place — Telly Halkias, The Portland (Maine) Daily Sun. Judge’s comment: His columns tell important stories about the community and the world. Immigration is a divisive issue and Telly Halkias manages to explain it without the hysteria that typically dominates the discussion. His elegant writing style is evident in a column about the importance of an Army friend — a sergeant who mentored a young lieutenant — decades earlier. His columns are powerful and sensitive.

Third Place — Amanda Beam, News and Tribune, Jefferson, Ind. Judge’s comment: Amanda Beam’s columns are personal, emotional and thoughtful. Her description of a walk through a cemetery and memories of a friend was handled with style and sensitivity. So was her description of the people in an Indiana community devastated by a tornado. Her serious columns speak of hope, her amusing stories have a message.

Honorable Mention — Jeff Girod, Inland Empire Weekly, Corona, Calif. Judge’s comment: Jeff Girod’s columns hit the issues of the day — hard — but make the point with a perfect mix of disgust, humor and intelligence.

Honorable Mention — Harriet P. Gross, Judge’s comment: Her columns are intense and smart, their historical lessons relevant.

Category C judge: John Carlson, retired as Des Moines Register columnist

Category D: Humor — under 50,000 circulation

First Place — Laura Rafaty, St. Helena (Calif.) Star. Judge’s comment: I thought the best of the bunch (first place) was Laura Rafaty, one of the columnists whose work actually produced multiple laugh-out-loud moments. Very conversational style, with a wide mix of subject matter (not just kids and insufferable spouses, as is the case with many of these entries). Her writing allows readers to sail along on a sea of mirth, a skill I saw lacking in many other entries. Like all good writers, she takes readers from the first to last sentences without them being aware they have just made the trip. Good journalistic writing is invisible.

Second Place — Beth Bartlett, Lovely County Citizen, Eureka Springs, Ark. Judge’s comment: Second place should go to Beth Bartlett for her “Wisecrack Zodiac” column. Very unusual and clever template for humor column construction. She writes in a style that is somewhat oddball and irreverent and, at times, rude, crude and socially on the edge, all of which is good. This is a woman who could do stand-up (and maybe does). This is a column that, as a reader, I would look forward to with each new edition of the paper.and may even be a reason why I bought the paper at all. A publisher’s dream-come-true.

Third Place — Ginger Truitt, The Lebanon (Ind.) Reporter. Judge’s comment: Third place should go to Ginger Truitt, whose columns not only are grounded in a very engaging conversational style but actually evoke both smiles and LOL moments. This is a column that I would seek out in each new edition of the paper and actually read from first graph to last. Interesting — and unpredictable — mix of topics, which is always a plus.

Honorable Mention — Tiffany Roach, Akers Media Group. Judge’s comment: Honorable mention to Tiffany Roach. Her writing style is very engaging, but every column submitted was grounded in conversations with her kids. While often entertaining, I would hope she tackles other subject matter. As an aside, I thought the illustrations that accompanied each piece were very well done and helped to draw readers into the columns.

Category D judge: Tom Walsh, writes for the Bangor (Maine) Daily News

Category E: Online, Blog, and Multimedia Column — over 100,000 monthly unique visitors

First Place — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times. Judge’s comment: This year’s wondrous entries by Roger Ebert in the columnist contest sadly will be his last. But that is not why he has won the top prize. Even in his final year, Ebert’s transcendent meditations on the pleasures of experience and the nature of human consciousness — what it truly means to exist — are a fitting coda for a life of unparalleled column writing. But recently he might have gotten one assertion wrong. In his column “I Remember You,” he writes, “[I]n a century the human race will have forgotten [my friends], and me as well. Nobody will be able to say how we sounded when we spoke.” I have no doubt that 100 years from now a new generation of readers will come to know and appreciate the sound of Ebert’s spectacular voice, physically decimated years ago by disease but made immortal through his writing.

Second Place — Richard Parker, The New York Times. Judge’s comment: With his keen observations and spritely prose, Richard Parker shows he can bring a reporter’s sensibility to any topic — from the famed counterculture of Austin to a sharp piece of presidential campaign analysis and even a richly woven Civil War battle story. Parker lathers his pieces with detail and immediate facts, exuding the persuasive voice of someone who knows what he’s talking about.

Third Place — John Avlon, The Daily Beast. Judge’s comment: John Avlon’s fascination with the nitty-gritty of politics and his tenacious truth-seeking make his a stand-out voice among news commentators. His calm-headed, thorough approach is a service to readers in making sense of a subject area afflicted by hyperbole and spin and distraction.

Honorable Mention — David Cay Johnston, Reuters.

Honorable Mention — James Kirkchick, New York Daily News.

Category E judge: Chad Lorenz, news editor at the online magazine Slate.

Category F: Online, Blog, and Multimedia Column — under 100,000 monthly unique visitors

First Place — Suzette Standring, The Patriot Ledger (Mass.). Judge’s comment: Standring’s writing is compact but eloquently evokes emotion, and gently invites the reader to ponder their own personal involvement with the issues. She adeptly explores the humanity and challenges in dealing with a distant father, a same-sex marriage and a 40th high school reunion. She writes about her reunion: “Yet that’s what a 40-year reconnection is for; to travel back in time to the bloom of youth and camaraderie, and to feel nothing but gratitude.” She is a thoughtful writer.

Second Place — Lisa Molinari, The Meat and Potatoes of Life. Judge’s comment: Molinari’s writing is accessible and witty and her approach to analyzing family matters is insightful and honest. Among people with young children, who doesn’t understand when she writes: “We had yogurt in a tube, cheese in a stick, chicken shaped like fingers, nuggets and dinosaurs….Pigs were rolled into blankets, and pizzas were stuffed into rolls. Just about anything was wrapped into a pastry pocket…” Her columns make you smile and chuckle out loud.

Third Place — Mike Farley, Farley In Writing. Judge’s comment: Farley’s writing engages the reader in a seeming three-way conversation. While his style is to create dialogue between characters, the writing is pithy, humorous and captures the essence of issues that many of us deal with often. In a column about trying to punish a teenager by taking away electronics and then losing the battle, his storytelling is the kind that makes the reader nod in agreement.

Category F judge: Mae Israel, independent journalist and blogger formerly of The Washington Post.

Dumb and dumber

(Laura Rafaty won the 2013 award for humor writing (50,000 and under circulation) from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. This is one of three columns submitted.)

I’ve always known that you don’t know what you don’t know, but now I’m learning that I don’t even know what I thought I knew.

For example, I was listening to classical radio the other day, when the theme from “Peter and the Wolf” started playing. “Tchaikovsky!” I exclaimed confidently, congratulating myself on my encyclopedic knowledge of the arts, until the announcer patiently explained that it was Prokofiev. Of course it was; I’ve heard symphonies perform that work for as long as I can remember, but my knowledge of the composer was obviously contained in a part of the brain that was erased to make room for knowledge of the subclass code required to ring a $2 greeting card into the cash register.

A similar thing happened to me after law school, when I noticed that the part of my brain that once empowered me to make interesting conversation with promising new acquaintances of the opposite gender had been erased to make room for statutes of limitation, the rule against perpetuities and the formulae for calculating bonuses earned by Bay Area law firm associates. I guess it’s true what they say: “Use it or lose it.” It seems that regular reliance on computer spell-checking has reduced my spelling to a fifth-grade level, daily use of the cash register has left me unable to make change for a dollar without the written assistance of a receipt, and practical use of a calculator has been compromised by my inability to remember what needs to be divided into which to equal whatever.

And to think that I once handled multimillion-dollar legal contracts. It’s as if parts of my mind have become as flabby as my midsection, in need of some sort of mental corset or brain trainer or, like presidential candidates, constant use of a teleprompter. On the other hand, I retain an incredible amount of useless minutiae. Want to know who starred in the television series “H.R. Pufnstuf” in 1969? Wondering what the lyrics are to the Super Chicken fight song (I can perform this for you if you’re buying)? Curious as to the mother’s maiden name of that guy I dated 30 years ago? I’m a steel trap where these details are concerned, so why worry if I sometimes forget my own zip code and can never find my sunglasses?

Of course, my intermittent mental meltdowns are fodder for the technology industries, which exist mainly to make us all feel like doddering ancients.

Nothing sounds sillier than people over 50 tossing around terms like “tweeting” and “Facebooking” and “Skyping.” I think a good rule of thumb should be that if you are of a certain age and you have heard of any device or application, or of anything at all of any kind whatsoever for that matter, you should just assume that if you know about it then it must already be tragically passé.

I particularly dread texting, and believe that there is a conspiracy among young engineers to transform what I typed into incoherent gibberish just to make me feel stupid. What laughs they must share, sitting there in Cupertino by the server in the middle of the night, drinking Pepsi and eating Fritos, changing the word “nana” to “anus” in my messages for their own amusement. And they never tire of requiring me to update my passwords and PINs, just to confirm that dementia is looming. Apparently identity thieves have discovered my cat’s middle name, and so my passwords must be replaced with some constantly revised combination of upper- and lower-case letters and numbers and colors and hand-signals to prevent penetration. I suppose I could write my passwords down and put them in a secure location, if only I could remember where that was.

On the bright side, my friends and I are mostly in the same boat. We sit around for hours patiently hacking away at conversational exchanges such as: “Did you see that movie last night? It starred the guy who was in that thing we saw in the theatre next to that restaurant we didn’t like.”

“The one near that place we used to go?” “No, not that guy. …the other one.”

Luckily, the theories of six degrees of separation, and of six degrees of Kevin Bacon (Google this, if people still do that), really do work, and we eventually remember whatever we were discussing, or forget that we were trying. After all, the secret to feeling smart is to surround yourself with people who are just as clueless as you are, and — as Gladys Knight, etc. recorded in 1989 on the Arista label — “that’s what friends are for.”

— Laura Rafaty

Laura Rafaty writes the bi-weekly humor column “Up the Valley” for the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Register. Her columns garnered first place for humor from the 2012 and 2013 National Society of Newspaper Columnists annual awards competition (50,000 and under circulation category).  She is a Tony-nominated theatrical producer, author and attorney.

Reflections of Erma