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The dreaded hostess gift

Some moron in the 12th century came up with the idea of offering a gift to someone who invites you to dinner. There is nothing wrong with this concept, but how do you know what kind of an event it will be, and you’ve already given them a thank you gift before you know what you are thanking them for. What if the food is lousy, the coffee is cold, the host spills his martini in your lap and the dog humps your leg all night? Hardly worth the $13.76 you spent on the gift, which, of course, you can’t get back.

When this tradition was introduced to yours truly several years ago, we would take a bouquet of flowers from our garden. This did not necessitate a 45-minute shopping nightmare trying to find something unique and clever, different from all the other offerings to be displayed on the cook’s counter.

There are two issues here: pocketbook and pride. First, how do you give something useful and yet inexpensive. If you go out and buy a bottle of fine wine, your bill could be upwards of $12-$15. If you purchase, not grow, a bouquet of flowers (those that won’t die four hours after sucking the vase water), the price could be close to $20. Secondly, if you buy something inexpensive, like my favorite, a package of cocktail napkins, you look like a real jerk next to the guy who popped for the Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape (vintage 1971, barrel #9,411).

There are more than 147 packages of cocktail napkins in our pantry decorated with everything from tennis trivia to ta ta jokes. The typical plastic wrapping makes them impossible to stack, so they keep slipping off the shelf. There are not enough shelves to line them up in rows so these “gifts” have become a source of serious stress at the old homestead.

Everyone knows that no one has the time or the desire to go out and search for just the right wine for whatever occasion, so all of the wine that is so carefully placed in fancy wine bags is nothing more than the first bottle that has been re-gifted over 100 times.

A better tradition might be to wait until after the dinner party to send a gift. This way if it was a first-class event, the gift would more accurately reflect the credit due. If the evening was a real bomb, then perhaps a Boone’s Farm or a Gallo Gris might be more appropriate.

— Sandra Moulin

Sandra Moulin, a freelance writer from Wilmington, N.C., is a retired master French and humanities high school and college teacher. She has self-published two volumes of humorous essays, Before and Laughter and Laughterwards. She writes for four local publications and gives humorous workshops and presentations.

Andy Garcia and me

The AARP Life@50+ Expo has come and gone, and I must say it far exceeded my expectations. So much to see and do and learn.

Though the connections made — and the dogs met — were delightful and well worth the trip, my favorite experience there was hands down the Movies for Grownups screening of “At Middleton,” which stars Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga.

You may recall the trailer for the film, included in this post here. (And if you don’t recall the trailer or didn’t watch it then, go watch it. Seriously.)

You may also recall from that post that I mentioned Andy Garcia would be at the screening. Which he was.

After the lovely movie that I enjoyed from beginning to end, Andy Garcia, along with Adam Rodgers and Glenn German — co-writers of the sweet story of two parents who meet during their children’s college tour — took the stage for an “At Middleton” Q&A session with the audience.

Mike wranglers roamed the crowd, giving those in attendance the chance to ask questions. I so wanted to ask who chose the musical selections integral to the story, having seen Arturo Sandoval’s name in the beginning credits (whom Andy Garcia played in a 2000 HBO film on Sandoval). But… though I can write for crowds, I sure as heck can’t speak in front of crowds. At all.

So I kept my mouth shut, listened to others and shot frame after frame of the handsome men on stage.

Then the topic of distribution of the independent film and support for it came up. Suddenly there was some mention of the support for the film on a site called Grandma’s Briefs, with Andy Garcia saying something about there being a special request and… something else I can’t remember at all because I somehow found myself standing and waving my arms and declaring to the men on the stage, That’s me, I’m Grandma’s Briefs!

And then Andy Garcia asked me to come up front.

Oh, <cuss>! I said in my head.

“Oh, no,” I said out loud.

I quickly asked the gentleman behind me to please take my camera and get some photos, someone thrust a microphone into my hand (Here, take this!) and I headed up front.

Right into the arms of Andy Garcia.

Unbelievable.

I wanted to say, “Wow! What a wonderful, touching film!”

I wanted to say, “You are a good, good man, Mr. Garcia!” (I think he is. In part because he and his wife have been married as long as Jim and I, and his family is top priority. Need more? Google him.)

And I wanted to say — once we hugged and I melted into his unbelievably soft jacket that simply felt like home — “Gee whiz! Let’s just stay right here and hug all freakin’ day!”

I didn’t say any of those things.

Instead, I said, “The other grandmas are going to be so jealous!” Yes, at that very special moment, I thought of you all.

Andy Garcia kissed me on the forehead, he thanked me for my support. And I just babbled: “Thank you, thank you, thank YOU….”

(As I mentioned, I can’t speak for <cuss> in front of crowds.)

But Mr. Garcia was kind and seemingly genuine as he hugged me again — comfy, cozy hugs that, well, just felt like home. And we posed for pictures.

Then I somehow managed my way back to my seat — after a quick hug to Sue, the PR rep taking photos… whom I also thanked profusely. The gentleman who used my camera gave it back, I thanked him several times, as well, then I sat back down and tried to stop shaking.

A few questions from the audience later — what the Q was or the A that followed, I couldn’t tell ya — then the whole thing was over. Just like that.

Poof!

Surreal.

When the lights came up and the crowd began exiting, the first thing I did was dial my husband. It’s the normal response when a long-time married woman hugs another man, right? Tell your husband?

I simply had to share with Jim.

And Jim was immediately jealous — jealous that he didn’t get to hug Andy Garcia!

But as he always is, my husband was thrilled for me.

“Was it a good hug?” he asked, as he and I put a lot of stock in a person’s hug, agree that so much of one’s character is revealed in their hugs.

I confirmed that it was.

And it certainly was.

Such a wonderful hug from a good, good man.

One truly unexpected, truly unforgettable moment.

Thank you, Andy Garcia.

Lisa Carpenter

Lisa Carpenter is a freelance writer, most often for Grandparents.com, NextAvenue and The Huffington Post. She blogs at Grandma’s Briefs. One of her posts, “The grandma in a box,” was named the 2013 BlogHer Voices of the Year People’s Choice selection in the humor category.

Authentic and edgy, with heart

(Leslie Marinelli, editor of You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth and Other Things You’ll Only Hear from Your Friends In The Powder Room, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the book. Besides Marinelli, the book features pieces by six other EBWW alumnae (Dawn Weber, Wendi Aarons, Shari Simpson, Alexandra Rosas, Julie Stamper and Su “The Suniverse” ) as well as a recent Humor Writer of the Month, Abby Heugel. Marinelli is editor-in-chief of  In The Powder Room, an online global community for women. She blogs at The Bearded Iris: A Recalcitrant Wife and Mother Tells All.)

What’s the premise behind the book?

“You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth” is a humor anthology of 39 original short stories written for women, by women, about being women — bodily changes, relationships, careers, motherhood, aging, etc. These are the kind of brutally honest, embarrassing stories women usually only tell their closest friends, often from within the haven of a ladies’ room. So aside from the voyeuristic entertainment value, the purpose of this book is to forge connections between women and help readers experience the solidarity of those “me, too!” moments that happen when friends reveal their deep dark secrets with humor and heart.

What’s been the response?

The response has been incredible. Right out of the gate we became the #1 top-selling book in our category on Amazon, and for several weeks following that we were the #1 top-rated humor book on Amazon as well. Based on the overwhelmingly positive reviews, there seems to be a real hunger out there right now for authentic and somewhat edgy women’s humor.

How long did it take to produce the book, from soliciting pieces and editing to production?

It took about four months total from creating the book cover to publishing, but we had a small team of editors working around the clock with caffeine IVs and adult diapers to pull that off.

How did you find a publisher? Why did you choose to self publish?

Choosing to self-publish was a no-brainer for us. The beauty of independent publishing (or “artisanal publishing” according to Guy Kawasaki) is that you maintain 100 percent control over your product and you get to keep the lion’s share of the profits. In The Powder Room has been around since 2009 honing our skills in humor writing, curating, editing, online publishing, and marketing. So extending our online community to include published books was just a natural progression for us.

How have you marketed the book?

Most of our marketing at this point has been through word of mouth…mainly by my mother who has bought and distributed 20 copies (and counting). If she buys any more, I’m going to have to make her a shareholder. Truly, though, this is the kind of book that women love so much they’re buying it for all the other women in their lives. We also have a built-in marketing team of 40 very enthusiastic co-authors who are out there proudly sharing it across their social networks. It’s really been a thrill to watch them take so much pride in the book, and rightly so — the competition was pretty fierce to earn one of the 39 coveted spots in the book, which is one of the reasons why the quality of the content is so extraordinary.

What tips would you give other writers who have a book in them?

My number one tip is to hire a professional graphic designer to create your cover. (We used Lisa Knight of Designs Done Now.) This is critical! The whole “Don’t judge a book by its cover” cliché exists because people really DO judge books by their covers. Also, make your book available in as many e-reader formats as you can. E-books are a win-win: the price point for customers is better, and your profit margin is much higher.

The single greatest lesson you learned from the experience?

As a humor writer, the single greatest lesson I learned was to swallow my pride, expose my jugular, and seek input from peers during the writing process. In addition to the professional editing I received from my team (Di Hayman and Kim Bongiono), I also sent a draft of my story to Abby Heugel (Abby Has Issues) and Julie Stamper (A Day in the Wife), two of my co-authors whose writing style and humor felt similar to my own, and they both gave me invaluable advice for how to improve my story.

As an editor and book publisher, the learning curve was pretty steep! I definitely learned to outsource some of the administrative and formatting tasks next time. But overall, the experience and final product were so fulfilling that we are already working on the sequel. Look for “How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?” an anthology about finding the funny in the face of tragedy, early next spring!

A healing journey

Dear Self,

As a little girl I used to keep a journal of all my thoughts and dreams.  I haven’t done that in years, and it occurred to me that now would be the perfect time to start a new journal after something miraculous happened to me.

How good it felt to leave my worries behind, waving good-bye to anxiety and stress and welcoming calmness back into my soul.

A miracle happened to me on this trip. My non-disabled body was returned for four glorious days while in Santa Fe. With no humidity, I was able to spend an entire day — AN ENTIRE DAY — fully awake and functioning without the need to nap. My legs and arms were never weak. I felt like I did 30 years ago.

It was phenomenal, and something I won’t soon forget.

How sweet it was to start our journey by spending time with family in Scottsdale that I rarely see and to renew relationships kept on hold while life continues to take us in different directions.

My journey continued to Santa Fe as I joyfully celebrated my silver wedding anniversary with Gary. It was a blessing. We spent quality time together in an area where art, architecture and landscape intersect to create a Mecca of beauty in a quaint, picturesque town.

It was thrilling to be here because this trip has always been on our l-o-n-g Bucket List.

I could breathe again and be myself. Wearing scarves, boots and turquoise, I fit right in with the rhythm of the creative culture.

The adobe buildings were captivating, housing unique galleries, museums, restaurants, shops and homes that colorfully dot the landscape.

Walking along the unique Canyon Road was bedazzling. As we took our time strolling along the area, we discovered that each adobe building housed new and creative artistic treasures of sculptures, jewelry and paintings.

The nature in Santa Fe reinvigorated me. We drove our rental car out of the city and into the narrow two-lane highway of High Road that brought us into the majestic mountains that offered breathtaking views at every turn.

Along the way we stopped at several charming galleries and walked around El Santuario de Chimayó, a National Historic Landmark church that is famous for the 300,000 yearly visitors it receives in search of their holy healing dirt.

We fell in love with one gallery in particular because of the sweet nature of the artist/owners, their creative pieces of art and the magnificent property they’ve owned for more than 30 years.

I imagined myself sitting outside, listening to the wind chimes created by the owners, surrounded by the beauty of the mountains.

We could finally understand why Georgia O’Keefe moved from New York to Santa Fe after losing her husband, famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz. To be alone with her art, and with the landscape she loved. Now it all made sense.

I loved the blending of Native American, Latino, White and Asian cultures who peacefully coexisted. I loved the vibrant colors of the textiles, jewelry, clothing and artwork.

Every meal was another adventure in delicious cuisine, whether it was authentic New Mexican or French food, or a small bakery (Sage Bakehouse) where using only organic, farm fresh ingredients is important to them. Their policy of providing leftover food to charities that feed the poor endeared them to me.

There was so much to explore, and we made a concerted effort to live fully in every moment, savoring each experience together while toasting to the next 25 wonderful years together.

With love and thanks,

A Grateful Girl

— Cathy Chester

Cathy Chester is a writer and health advocate from New Jersey whose blog, An Empowered Spirit, helps people live a healthy and vibrant life after 50. She’s a blogger/moderator for The Huffington Post, MultipleSclerosis.net and Healthline.com. She’s a peer advocate who also provides professional education presentations on behalf of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to nursing homes about the basics of living with MS.

Dog days of heaven

I made it into the Top 13 of Blogger Idol, the premier blogging contest for bloggers, and my first assignment was to write a eulogy for myself. Yuck. As someone who is relentlessly optimistic, this is not a topic I want to think about. And, honestly, I don’t need people gushing on about me; I’d rather they just adopt whatever positive qualities they think I had and find a way to use them for good.

I know a eulogy is totally dependent on who’s giving it, so I thought long and hard about whose voice I should use. My husband’s? No. He’d be very funny but he’s always threatened to memorialize my tendency to procrastinate by etching “I’m gonna …” on my tombstone. My kids’? No. Death is probably a good time for me to finally stop trying to control their lives.

So, in order to present myself in the best light, I decided my eulogy should be written by Jessie, my beloved Newfoundland, who passed away last year at almost 12 years old. Ultimately, I hope I really am the person my dog thought I was.

My tail is wagging like crazy and I can’t stop pacing and panting.

I’m going to see Lois!

I remember we once watched a movie together called What Dreams May Come, and there’s a scene where Katie welcomes her human dad to Heaven. Lois cried hysterically and held me tight. I tried to wiggle out of her arms because she was making me a little claustrophobic, but now I can’t wait for her to do that again. I’ve missed her so much.

Lois took me to the dog park every single morning for years and years, even though she hated getting up that early, because she knew how much I loved it. She was excited to share her lunch with me — “Oh, Jess, look what I have” were some of my favorite words — and if I brought a toy over to her while she was sitting and working, she always stopped to play tug of war.

Lois laughed a lot. I didn’t usually understand why, but it made me feel warm and happy. She used to say I sometimes smelled like a baked good (knowing how much she loved baked goods, that’s a huge compliment), and I want her to realize those are the times I felt so content, I must literally have been exuding sweetness. By the way, my sensitive nose picked up that same scent from everyone Lois came in contact with. She pretty much made us all feel like royalty.

Sometimes, when Lois was hugging her other kids or snuggling with Michael, I’d feel a little jealous and would have to nudge my way in between them. She’d scratch my head on that spot I like, give me a kiss and make room for me. I noticed she always made room for those who needed her.

Lois had so many amazing people in her life, and I got to meet many of them. Anyone who gave me the cold shoulder eventually got the cold shoulder back from her. She was fiercely protective of the ones she loved, like a Mama Newf with her pups.

When I got sick, Lois explained why she had to give me shots. Each one was followed up by an enthusiastic “Good girl!” and a soft, soothing rub on the sore spot. When I couldn’t climb steps any more, she would sleep downstairs with me if I barked because I wanted company. She even sang to me, which I know came from a good place although it sometimes made me want to put her Bose noise-cancelling headphones on my sensitive ears.

I still think of all the times Lois told her friends about the beautiful sense of peace I brought to the house. I want to show her she always did the same for me.

So I will greet her with the same unbridled exuberance I felt every time she came home. I will lick every inch of her face, jump on her to get as close as I can and make little — maybe big — sounds of joy. I will probably smell like a baked good.

And I will celebrate the fact that it’s now her turn to “sit” and “stay.”

— Lois Alter Mark

Lois Alter Mark blogs at Midlife at the Oasis and The Huffington Post. She won BlogHer Voices of the Year Awards in 2012 and 2013. After being selected as an Ultimate Viewer by Oprah, she accompanied her to Australia on the trip of a lifetime.

Peering from Dad’s brain

jon_ziegler_bookJon Ziegler has published his second book, From Inside the Brain of a Dad Looking Out. He’s a husband, father and a tree trimmer who started writing as an outlet for what he calls “creative madness.” His first book is called The How-Not-To Guide to Parenting and Marriage.

Poking a dead frog

Deadfrog-Final-SECONDMike Sacks’ new book, Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers, will be released by Viking/Penquin on June 24, 2014.

Up North Happiness Project

Last week Madam and I tried something new, a themed road trip. I needed fodder for my next book, and she hoped to point her book club cronies to a more inspiring topic than Senate filibuster. So, we decided to create the First Annual Up North Happiness Project. Surely it would be more fun than polarized politics and safer than last year’s project — recovering Madam’s stolen horse from Nowthen, Texas.

So I dusted off the Rand McNally Road Atlas, and chose a destination — Ely, Minn., home to North Pole dogsled explorer extraordinaire, Will Steger. It made a perfect spot to launch some lofty happiness goals. Madam invited friends Monica and Miss Vicki to join us. Then, in honor of our first happiness project resolution, Just Say Yes, she also invited Pooch One, Pooch Two and the Fluff Muffin Cat.

Ely is located approximately three rest stops and one doggie throw-up north of Saint Paul. That combined with Madam’s checkered past operating GPS made it a longish drive. Yet, the drive time and the Fluff Muffin’s erratic use of his litter box provided ample opportunity for each passenger to exercise resolution number two, Lighten Up.

The Happiness Project author, Gretchen Rubin, surely would have approved of our third resolution, Spread the Joy. It applied nicely to the birthday celebration we held in honor of Monica. Not only did the party include a fabulous soufflé cake and several bottles of chardonnay, it transformed our happiness blueprint into an AARP enterprise. In other words, the discussion veered sharply from men to Medicare and high-fiber food.

Night one, the women washed party dishes, picked up the cabin and tucked themselves into their cozy beds by nine bells. About midnight, a woodland creature attempted to make entry through an open window. Apparently the women believed the crackling sound came from a bear because they sprang out of bed as if someone had sounded a tornado siren. Madam shouted safety instructions and waved a canister of Mace pepper spray that she mistook for a flashlight. Pooches one and two barked bravely at the possibility of menacing wildlife. All the while, the Fluff Muffin reclined on the kitchen counter where he entertained a small field mouse. The terrified mouse was attempting to transport an M&M chocolate bar to his abode before the Fluff Muffin caught up to him. The candy wrapper made a fearsome crackling sound that no doubt prompted a bear alert. So much for lessons learned from the wildlife expert we just met at the Ely Bear Center.

Anyhoo, in the interest of happiness resolution number four, Be More Inclusive, Madam chased away the cat and prepared a plate of quiet food for the mouse. This meant the candy wrapper had to go, but the tiny intruder could still enjoy a peanut butter sandwich without waking any intrepid campers.

As for the Up North Happiness Project, I’d say it lost a few points in wildlife identification but made up for it in field mouse hospitality.

— 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.

Reflections of Erma