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

Erma Bombeck Wrighters' Workshop Banner

It’s a book!

This is a clever way to announce the “birth” of a book:

Kin We're Not Related ToIt took a bird, a photographer, a writer, an “I’ve never attended a writing workshop in my life and everyone’s going to know it” gal from Texas, EBWW 2010 and an alignment of the stars to bring these two writers together.

Two years later at EBWW 2012, a whine was added, some wine was consumed and Mabel and MayBelle were born.

It took less than a year for their story to be written, more than a year to edit it, a thousand or more e-mails back and forth, a couple of editors, an artistic daughter-in-law, more wine — and the book was born.

birth announcement

Jody Worsham and Wanda M. Argersinger, the proud parents, are shouting from the top of pine trees, selling from the tailgates of their vehicles, giving away bookmarks — and still drinking wine.

Help them celebrate their birth of their first joint book, Kin We’re Not Related To As Told By Mabel and Maybelle.

Never judge a person by their baggage

Holly Kelsey-HenryI haven’t always travelled light. The first time I went overseas I brought two large suitcases with me. I have no idea why I thought I needed to go abroad anchored down by 80 kilos of shoes, shirts, skirts, scarves and earrings. But nevertheless, I was prepared for everything from a flood to a gala at Parliament House.

It took me all of 12 minutes to realize this was a bad idea and I haven’t looked back since. Now I travel light. No matter where I go, I go with a backpack. My mom and sister-in-law and I went to London with backpacks and I just returned from a seven-states-in-nine-days’ journey with a backpack. Seriously, I wanted for nothing that wasn’t in my meager sidesaddle and have learned to be a really industrious packer.

Which is why, as you might have guessed, I am now a very judgmental  airport person. For instance, during my recent journey I was squished into a United Airlines Airbus with a guy who boarded with golf clubs, two infant seats and a trophy. I’m not making this up. How he got past Joan Crawford at the gate is totally beyond me, because she took my backpack away from me claiming it wouldn’t fit in the overhead bin.

Now what I know about golf you could stack on a postage stamp and still have room for what I know about baseball, but this guy had like 18 clubs. How many clubs does it take to hit a little ball around?

The real kicker was when a gal that resembled and talked just like Fran Drescher from “The Nanny” came on board with a pink bag the size of the District of Columbia and tried to jam it under the seat. The flight attendant graciously moved Fran over to an empty seat, next to . . . me. The lady across the aisle tucked her tiny wallet into the seat pocket in front of her and smirked.

With an exasperated sigh, Fran began telling me about her trip, how she left LA and missed another connecting flight because hers was delayed because they had to return to the gate so maintenance could fix an empty seat that would not recoil to the upright position. She  began her journey at 4 a.m. and would end it in Milwaukee at around midnight. She told me about a guy she fell in love with, her career aspirations, how she really wanted to be a wife and mother more than anything else and about her parents who had been together since they were 15.

For about the first 30 seconds I hated her for her big pink bag. I had categorized her as “Selfish Pink Bag Lady” who was filed in the same column as “Golf Buffoon with Clubs.”

As I listened  she finally told me that when she went to check her bag they decided she shouldn’t have her laptop and several other items in there and that really, she was trying NOT to bring stuff on board. They said it weighed too much and threatened to charge her $100, so she whipped out her big pink bag (everyone has one right?) and started jamming things in it to bring on board. The plane weighed exactly the same with her stuff split between cargo-hold and economy, but there are important rules made up by these people who won’t let you carry on a nail file, but allow scalding coffee to be served at 30,000 feet.

In the end I found myself liking Fran. She was young and sweet and funny and seemed to enjoy my oldness and wisdom. We hugged goodbye and I later received a lovely message from her thanking me for my encouragement and advice (even though she wasn’t going to take it.)

As I stood at the luggage carousel I noted a small older lady attempting to hoist her extra large suitcase off the belt. Instantly, I judged her, but offered to help anyway.

“Toys for the grandkids,” she muttered, almost embarrassed at the girth of her cargo. “I only see them once a year.”

I stood and took in my moment of shame and reminded myself that my habit of judging people by their luggage was rather silly. Some people have backpacks, some people have neat little wallets they can tuck in the seat pocket in front of them and others have jumbo American Touristers stashed in the cargo hold.

But this much is for sure, we all have baggage . . .

— Holly Kelsey-Henry

Holly Kelsey-Henry is the owner of DownWrite Creative in Wisconsin and makes her living as a writer — some days more profitably than others. She is a former award-winning journalist and still writes for newspapers and magazines.

Ask a silly question

Bob NilesWhy is it that people standing in line for groceries, airplane bathrooms or every other place on earth want to start a conversation with a total stranger?

And how do they begin a conversation? They ask really stupid questions.

“So, do you have a cat?” she asks as we happen to make eye contact in the grocery line.

What would make her think I have a cat? Is it because my black jacket is covered in Tinkers’ white hair? Or is it because my T-shirt has a huge graphic of a house cat? All subtle clues.

Or could it be the 25-pound sack of Meow Mix with an equally weighted box of stinky pee-absorbing cat litter?

Hard to say how Einstein came up with the hypothesis of me owning a cat.Sketch 2014-08-11 22_33_46

And because I hate people being presumptuous about my private business, I respond by saying, “No! I’m on a new Hollywood diet of high-energy cat food. It’s called the ‘Minimizing my Mass Mith Meow Mix.’ Sorry, ‘With Meow Mix,’” I correct myself. “Its meaty center is surrounded by a crunchy outside that supplies antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

Which,” I raise my finger in authority and smile, “supplies me with healthy teeth, bones and a strong immune system. Just look how sleek my hair looks. (I read that on the bag before I bought it). And you’ll notice that I get the Indoor Formula for the less active, to keep me slim and healthy,” I informed her as I suck in the graphic of my cat.

“Oh,” she responds as she looks for the nearest exit.

“Yes,” I say, “just a bowl in the morning and one at night with a saucer of milk.” Then, I try to think what to say next, adding, “I never wanted to go out after dinner before I was on this diet, but not now. I’m always ready for a late night prowl.”

“Fascinating,” she mumbled.

“And the kitty litter?” I continue. “Well, let’s just say I’m suppose to keep track of, well, you know. It’s all scientific and has to do with what’s being absorbed and what’s being digested and what’s left behind.”

I continue on as the line inches ahead. It’s certainly not fast enough for some, but I’m starting to enjoy it. I go on about what I’ve lost and how much better I feel. Blah, blah, blah. As my mouth goes on, my mind goes off and I am reminded of a similar instance from a TV talk show personality who was breastfeeding a child on an airplane. All subdued, of course. A guy waiting in line for the mile-high outhouse looks down at her and asks, “Is that yer kid?”

“No! I’m breastfeeding all the kids on the airplane. Ya got one that needs some suckling?” she responded.

That hit me as being funny, and I never forgot it. Which brings me back to my tall tale. “And I’ve never been so happy and healthy!” I end my (all but for the exception of her two words) soliloquy.

“Fascinating.” she again replies.” Oh, look! It looks like it’s your turn at the check out!” she excitedly points out, hoping to move me along quicker.

I bag up all my tales of my unorthodox Hollywood diet as she starts to unload her buggy of its contents. At which the guy behind her (who was drunk) tapped her on the elbow and slurred an assumption, “I…I..BET yer single! Are you shingle?”

Oh no, this can’t be good. I’m starting to move a little faster with my bags now.

“You think I’m single?”

“That’s what she shed,” he slurred.

“Why do you think that? Is it my one stick of butter? Half a dozen eggs? Half pound of bacon? Is it my four bags of…”

“Naw it’s cuse you ugly!” he interrupted.

Now I’m running out the door as it starts to get loud and the manager is called to the check out. That was my fun for the day.

I never use to be this way, but now I’m more of an “ask a stupid question get a stupid answer” kind of guy. People just say stuff to fill silence. Silence which I love! Silence is golden! But so many of us need to talk, asking silly questions to start a conversation. People make an assumption from what they see or hear about you in public and start up a conversation thinking they know you.

Maybe all the cat stuff was for my dear deceased aunt’s cat that I had to take in during this very troubled time. Nobody looks down in a cart filled with Meow Mix and kitty litter and asks if your dear aunt died. Why don’t they assume that?

The late actor Jimmy Stewart once told a story about the time he asked a man out walking a dog if his dog bites. “Oh, no,” said the man, “Gentle as a lamb.”

When Jimmy reached down to pet the dog, it nearly took his arm off. “I thought you said your dog didn’t bite!” he hollered. “I did,” he answered. “That’s not my dog.”
He should have kept quiet rather than assume the man owned the dog.

If you’re going to ask a question of someone you don’t know, make sure you know the answer. Just like that drunk who was two shoppers behind me.

Oh, and be prepared. You might be surprised at the answer. With the help of a Coach purse, the truth can hurt.

— Bob Niles

Bob Niles, who answers to Robert, Bobby, Dad, Grandpa, Unit No.2 (his Dad could never remember all the children’s names), honey and super hero, is new to writing but not to storytelling. “I like to make people laugh and to think, with a secret desire make them dance and send me untraceable $100 bills in the mail,” says the happily married, retired father and grandpa from Richmond in British Columbia, Canada. He blogs here.

Snakes and cockroaches

Hillary IbarraOn a recent lonely night while my husband was away, a giant cockroach attacked me. It buzzed hideously in my ear before I leapt up, dancing a jig of horror as I kicked and twisted about, scraping my fingers through my hair and down my back.

When it crawled out from beneath the throw I had thrown, I chased and killed the thing – mainly to prevent its retreat down the hall toward my sleeping children. Then for half an hour I glanced furtively at its mutilated body every few seconds from a safe distance, extending a shaky hand to scoop it up with paper towels, but recoiling every time, shuddering. I had this terrifying notion that a cockroach-zombie apocalypse would begin that night in my living room. The moment I lifted the insect’s mangled remains, it would reanimate into something unsquashable and eat my brain.

I begged my spastic Yorkie to come and offer me moral support, but that terrier is obviously a wimp and no friend in troubled times. So I thought of my mother and a certain summer encounter with a snake. How I needed her bravery!

In the telling of this episode of my childhood, I feel a tad guilty, for I remember distinctly our dad telling my siblings and me to help mom in the garden.

Instead, we kids were lying about, preferring boredom to effort, when mom burst through the front door and cried, “Oh, s–t! There’s a copperhead in the garden!”

All four of us froze in horror, not too much of a stretch for our lazy bodies. But it wasn’t the presence of a snake that got us. It was the word which had escaped our virtuous mother’s lips. My sister Vinca finally stuttered, “Wha-wha-what did you say?”

Mom cut straight to the point in wide-eyed frenzy, “I need something…anything! I’ve got to kill it!”

Unfortunately, she spotted the rifle on the living room shelf and ran out of the house with it and the ammunition. My brother Nate was close on her heels, urging her to let him shoot it. (He had actually handled it and was a good shot.)

“Stand back, all of you!” mom ordered.

After promptly doing so, we kids watched as our mother blasted not only the bean plants, but the corn and tomatoes as well. The iniquitous reptile, however, was found unscathed and had hardly moved from its original position.

Having depleted the sparse ammunition, mom yelled desperately, “Get me rocks! Bring me rocks! I need something to throw at it!”

We made a munitions line to the flower bed, and thus began bombardment with stones. My sister Annie dragged an enormous rock from the flower bed wall, laughing and winking at me and Nate as she lugged it between her legs. Our mother, still powered by adrenaline, lifted the considerable weight over her head and hurled it like Jillian Michaels in the general direction of the bean plants.

But the snake survived, though it had lost much of its cover. Our flattened garden was a sad testimony to the presence of the cold-blooded creature. Mom decided the time had come for close combat. She marched to the side of the house, grabbed the hoe propped there and returned to where she had first encountered the copperhead while kneeling in its proximity. She then quickly and precisely chopped off its head. Always the lady, she refrained from putting it on a pike at the edge of the garden to warn other serpents.

She was her usual calm self when dad returned home that evening, and we kids were impatient to relate the story of “our” adventure. We met him at the car, and mom stood behind us with folded arms as we all spoke at once. Somewhere in the telling, one of us burst out with, “And mama said a bad word. She said the s-word!”

“I did not,” mom spoke firmly.

“But, mom, you did!” said Nate. “When you came in the house!”

“I would never say that word.” Her voice was very quiet, and her large eyes were narrowed. We didn’t dare contradict her.

Not until she went back into the house. Then we all turned to dad and began whispering, “She said it, daddy. She really did.”

Dad was skinning the miscreant, very pregnant snake in the driveway. His pale green eyes were bright with amusement as he replied, “I believe you. But it’s our secret, okay? Don’t make your mama angry.”

There was no one around to hear my unladylike mumblings during my psychological battle against the undead cockroach. Finally, I snatched the carcass from the floor and sealed it in a plastic bag, inspired just enough by the memory of my mother’s beheading of the snake.

And the next time I saw an enormous cockroach in my home? Well, I glared at it for some time. Then I told it not to stuff itself, said goodnight, turned off the light and retreated to bed.

Sometimes, it’s easier to admit that you’re more like your Yorkie and less like your valiant mother.

— Hillary Ibarra

Hillary Ibarra has had several humor pieces published on Aiming Low and She has dreams of playing the banjo, living in Jane Austen’s childhood home and writing for more than spam artists and 50 loyal readers, but can’t seem to find them in the laundry. She is the mysterious blogger at No Pens, Pencils, Knives or Scissors. In her spare time she likes to threaten to sell her children to the zoo, and their little dog, too.


Hugging Santa Rosa

Jean WongI am a lout and a clown — at least that’s what my daughter Sara thinks whenever we are in public. So I’m on my best behavior when we’re together. I rein in my corny jokes, inquisitiveness, loud voice and tendency to mispronounce words.

She moved to Germany, and I went on 10-day visit. When I arrived, she took me to lunch. It seemed more like a bakery than a real restaurant, but I found out later that this was a typical German eatery. You order these little sandwiches that are already made from a display case. There’s cheese, or cheese with ham, cheese with chicken, cheese with turkey. That was it. I’m on a lifelong diet — bread and cheese are not what I eat, so I viewed these choices with dismay. The waitress didn’t speak English. I asked Sara to translate and see if I could have my sandwich on rye, with no butter or mayonnaise. Sara looked at me sternly, “Mom, I don’t think they do it that way here. The sandwiches are already made.”

“Oh, okay, but could you at least tell her not to put the tea bag in the pot. I can’t take tea that’s too strong.”

“Mom, just accept what’s given to you,” she whispered with an urgency that shut me up. I ate half the sandwich obsessed with the fact that Sara doesn’t have a scale in her house. The one thing I hate about traveling is the amount of weight I gain.

After we ate, I looked for a bathroom. Sara pointed downstairs. I climbed down these steep narrow steps and went through a series of hallways. I looked at one door that said “Damen.” My mind registered “The Men.” so I pushed open the other door. It happened to be the fire escape exit and a loud bell started ringing. People started running down stairs. German sounds along with gesticulating fingers surrounded me. I returned to the table hardly able to look my daughter in the eye.

When I asked Sara if I could get a doggie bag for the rest of my sandwich, she hissed “Mom, they don’t do that here. You’re expected to eat the whole meal and no one says doggie bag — even in America!”

For the rest of the trip, I ate what was given to me and tried my best not to make a spectacle of myself. If we went out to dinner, I still got frowns of disapproval from my daughter when I brought along some potato chips to nibble with my drink or tried to smuggle some food out in a plastic bag. But for the most part, I was quiet and reserved, blending into the stern Teutonic culture.

My 10 days are up! I meet my husband at the airport terminal on Mendocino Avenue. I hug him, but I really want to hug the ground, the buildings, the city of Santa Rosa. He rushes me off to Lyons. No fancy stuff for me — I want no-nonsense, family style food.

As I enter the restaurant, my voice is deliberately several decibels louder than usual. But I have immunity. No one turns around and stares. There’s no grim disapproval.

A glass of Chardonnay floats into my hand. It’s in an outrageously large glass, a whole three quarters full. My little bag of peanuts from the plane shamelessly appears, and I munch away. I survey the cornucopia-like menu: Turkey Special, Southwestern Shrimp Salad, Chicken Strips, Tri Tip Platter, BBQ Ribs, Atlantic Salmon.

The waitress arrives. Smiling broadly, she asks how we’re doing. I gush as I tell her all about my trip and how happy I am to be back. She smiles and chats with me. My garrulousness doesn’t phase her — she’s just serving a normal American customer.

I pepper her with questions. Are the steaks really good or just so so? What about the ribs? How popular is the salmon? Could she repeat all the different kinds of salad dressing? Are the pies freshly made with real fruit?

I order a top sirloin, medium rare. Can she make sure there are ample onions, no butter on the French bread, substitute a salad for the potatoes, put the dressing on the side and bring some Worcester sauce? I ask for decaf coffee, one quarter coffee, the rest hot water. Is there any low-fat milk and brown sugar back there? Could she be sure to bring the coffee toward the end of the meal?

She cheerfully obliges. I know there’s going to be a lot of food, but hey, no problem — they have doggie bags.

The wine eases me to lean back in my seat and survey the tacky non old-world ambiance. I bask in the garish plastic menus, fake wood paneling, booths with vinyl cushioning, air conditioner blasting away ignoring energy-saving precautions.

Dinner arrives. I dig in and gobble up. Freedom.

— Jean Wong

Jean Wong is an award-winning poet, memoir and fiction writer and her work has been produced by the 6th Avenue Playhouse, Petaluma Reader’s Theater and Off The Page.  Her book, Sleeping with the Gods, has been recently published. When writing Jean sometimes proceeds like a mule — other times a brilliant racehorse speeds. Whatever the process, she’s amazed to be alive and telling the tale.

The pumpkin industrial complex

Nancy Davis KhoI recently received the October Trader Joe’s print circular, the one that is for some reason illustrated with drawings of Edwardian shoppers telling jokes. The pamphlet’s main purpose is to inform shoppers about all the latest additions to the grocery store’s shelves and, as I leafed through, I noticed a new and disturbing trend.

Pumpkin, pumpkin everywhere. In baked goods, yes, but also in ravioli, and yogurt, and in creamed cheese and in moisturizing body butter. There are even pumpkin-flavored dog treats.

Do you remember how it was with pumpkin, as recently as five years ago? You would go to the supermarket for that one can of pumpkin puree needed for your contribution to the Thanksgiving dessert buffet. Half the time, they only had the big 28 oz. can, and your recipe only needed a cup of the orange paste, so you’d have leftovers to throw away. Or, since the grocery stores didn’t want to stockpile it either, there would be a 2-for-1 deal on cans of pumpkin puree and you’d end up discovering that second can in the back of the kitchen pantry in July and wonder what else to do with it, besides a few quick bicep curls.

But those days are past. All of a sudden, pumpkin is as ubiquitous as open letters to Miley Cyrus. From the lattes at Starbucks to the Pumpkin Spice Hershey’s Kisses (just threw up in my mouth a little) to the pumpkin pyramid-shaped end caps at Trader Joe’s, Cucurbita pepo is everywhere.

How did this elevation of pumpkin’s status, from lowly cobweb-in-cupboard gatherer to Main Dish, occur? I’m highly suspicious. Maybe it’s because I’m finally reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma right now. It’s gotten me so shook up that I have no choice but to blame the pumpkinization of our culture on the Pumpkin Industrial Complex.

Pollan explains in stomach-churning detail how the human relationship with another vegetable, corn, has evolved with the help of technology, commerce and science so that, and I’m paraphrasing here, we are now basically corn’s bitch. We can barely keep up with the agricultural biomass monster we’ve created, so we breed things to eat corn and corn byproducts that normally wouldn’t (cows, pigs, toddlers) just to not get buried by the next year’s harvest. Who wins? Companies like ADM and Cargill, but mostly corn. Corn stopped reading the Farmer’s Almanac years ago. This arrogant sonafabitch grain knows that if it were to rain grasshoppers and straight hydrochloric acid, America would still find a way to save corn. Because America needs its high fructose corn syrup and trans fatty acids.

I’m sure some ambitious pumpkins looked across the farm field one moonlit night and thought, stupid corn. We could do that. We could become pervasive. The big misshapen supersize pumpkins that look like Jabba the Squash, the adorable baby pumpkins that are sent home with first graders on field trips, and all the orange globes in between: they put their gourds together and decided they needed to diversify, and the Pumpkin Lobby was born.

Of course, we made it exceptionally easy for them to proceed with their takeover. How?

Every October, we carve mouths into them. Even corn was never given the ability to openly communicate the details of its uprising.

So when you hear a spooky whisper on your front porch in the waning days of October, don’t automatically assume it’s a trick-or-treater, or the wind. It could very well be Liam’s pumpkin saying to Emma’s: “So we’re agreed. Next year: we conquer the potato chip flavoring aisle, with a flanking assault on the soda category. And in 2015: pumpkin wine.”

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

— Nancy Davis Kho

Nancy Davis Kho is a writer in Oakland whose work has appeared in has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, EContent Magazine, The Rumpus and anthologies including Moms Are Nuts and Knowing Pains. An avid music fan, she writes about the years between being hip and breaking one at, and was recently named a 2014 BlogHer Voice of the Year, as well as Oakland’s inaugural Literary Death Match champ. She’s currently finishing up a memoir about her midlife music crisis.

Food diary, my butt.
That’s a paper trail.

Vikki ClaflinResearching my weight loss program options for 2013, in yet another enthusiastic but short-lived attempt to lose the same 10 pounds I’ve been working on since 1974, I did a quick review of previous epic fails.

1. Jenny Craig. Tastes great, but portioned for a small gerbil. Jenny’s Fish & Chips dinner entree would be more aptly named “Fish & CHIP.” Kenny tried to take a bite of my breakfast sausage once and I burst into tears. This plan is not for couples who like to share.

2. Nutrisystem. Worst. Food. Ever. I should have clued in on the foil-wrapped entrees. Very space shuttle, with taste to match. Sorry Ms. Osmond, but I couldn’t get hungry enough to eat this food.

3. HCG Drops. Supposed to make your body think it’s pregnant (Who THINKS of this stuff??) Since I gained 65 pounds during my only pregnancy, this gets perilously close to what my son calls “Mom’s dark place.” Then I saw the 500 calories/day plan associated with the drops. 500 CALORIES PER DAY?? What do you do after breakfast? Sigh. Back on the shelf for you.

4. Low Carb. This one works, if you can live without bread. And rice. And wheat, potatoes, pasta, most fruits, ice cream, desserts, fried foods or alcohol. Yep, that’s right. NO RED WINE. Positively uncivilized. And three days into it, I would have cheerfully traded my beloved Paco for a bagel. Buh-bye, Dr. Atkins.

5. Weight Watchers. Undeniably successful, if you like to spend your days searching recipes, grocery shopping, planning, cooking, counting and charting your progress. Not for the uncommitted. Or for those with a job.

This was getting discouraging, until I discovered an online article that reported higher weight loss by people who wrote down everything they ate during the day. WTH. Even I can do that. Happily printed off the form and started my food diary the next morning.

Breakfast: 2 slices bacon, 2 eggs, large cinnamon roll. Lunch: Nachos, extra guacamole. Afternoon snack: Peanut M&M’s. (Hard to actually count, since they were in a bowl, but I did skip the nasty blue ones.) Dinner: Homemade lasagna, garlic bread. (No space provided for wine, so assuming they weren’t asking for that.) Bedtime snack: Bowl of Lucky Charms with milk (skim…not like I’m not trying).

Two days later… Well, this is stupid. All I got was hand cramps from writing, and I didn’t lose an ounce. I think I just have a slow metabolism.

— Vikki Claflin

Oregon writer Vikki Claflin writes the popular humor blog, Laugh Lines. Two recent pieces have been published in Life Well Blogged: Parenting Gag Reels — Hilarious Writes and Wrongs: Take 26. In 2014, she received a BlogHer Voice of the Year award for humor.

The last laugh

I can see it now. A huge tufted nightclub booth, upholstered in spotless linen, floating on a cloud in the sky. A group of chuckling comedians is seated at the heavenly table, kibitzing over a bowl of perfectly salted cocktail peanuts. The comedians scoot over to make room, because one more has arrived.Lisa Smith Molinari

It’s Joan Rivers.

Their earthly mission to make other people smile complete, Rivers, Williams, Belushi, Radner, Candy, Farley and other comedic legends, lounge comfortably with each other. Their laughter echoes softly in the stratosphere.

Funny people who have made it their life’s work to make the rest of us laugh deserve a good seat in Heaven. Especially when you consider that, many of them did not have it so easy here on Earth.

Humor is a gift, but like the people who possess a good sense of it, it’s often complicated. With a few exceptions, funny people tend to be complex individuals with insecurities and internal struggles, prone to over analysis and deep thinking about their own significance in the world.

Even though my life’s work has been making sandwiches and cleaning toilets as a Navy housewife and mother of three, I can totally relate.

As a tubby little daydreamer, I discovered at a young age that humor was my ticket out of social mediocrity. Knowing that there was no way I was going to meet my parents’ expectations for a slim, sophisticated, charming daughter, I began to secretly experiment with humor.

I loved to watch comedians like Flip Wilson, Soupy Sales, Carol Burnett, Bill Cosby, and my favorite, Jerry Lewis. I learned quickly that I could make people laugh by crossing my eyes, adopting a fake speech impediment, or using raisins to black out my teeth.

Self-deprecation seemed to be the most direct path to social acceptance, so I began poking fun at myself regularly. Initially, my parents did not find my new image funny at all, and made a last-ditch effort to get me back on the right track, signing me up for English horseback riding lessons and encouraging me to seek a serious career in business one day.

But it was already too late. By the end of my senior year in high school, I was elected 1984 Class Clown, making it official: I was the funny girl.

What I didn’t realize then, aside from the fact that my reputation as a clown would prevent me from getting a decent date to the prom, was that people would expect me to be funny for the rest of my life. Having a sense of humor became my job, and I had to punch the clock through good times and bad.

Thankfully, humor helped me find my husband, also a funny guy, and raise three funny kids. Through 20 years of military moves, it helped us all make new friends. And my own witty observations about military life, marriage and parenting helped me put this column in print over five years ago.

Comedians spend their lives making people laugh despite enormous tragedy and private personal struggles. We praise them when they are funny, and ignore them when they are not. Then, when they die, we finally become curious about who they really were.

Robin Williams, who committed suicide last month at the age of 63, was a thoughtful person who suffered from bouts of devastating depression. Before her untimely death from cancer at age 43, Gilda Radner had a tough childhood, teased for being overweight and suffering the death of her beloved father when she was only a teenager. Chris Farley’s need for attention from his 600-pound alcoholic father motivated his hilarious physical comedy. But despite his kind heart, Farley inherited his father’s self-destructive tendencies, dying of a drug overdose at the age of 33, the same age as John Belushi when he died.

Joan Rivers was a comedic pioneer who could dish out the zingers, and take them, especially when it came to her multiple plastic surgeries. But behind the scenes, Rivers suffered personal tragedy when her beloved husband of 22 years, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide in 1987.

And the list goes on.

Clever, sensitive, deep-thinking, warm-hearted and sometimes self-destructive, funny people are complicated.  We should not wait for them to die to appreciate that their multiple facets and personal struggles are exactly what make them interesting in the first place.

As Joan herself once said, “I think anyone who’s perfectly happy isn’t particularly funny.”

— Lisa Smith Molinari

Lisa Smith Molinari won second place (under 100,000 monthly visitors) in the online/multimedia category of the 2013 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ competition. She was a finalist in the Robert Benchley Society Annual Humor Writing Contest that same year. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, several anthologies, various magazines, websites and other publications.  Her blog, “The Meat and Potatoes of Life,” is an expanded version of a weekly newspaper column that runs in military and civilian newspapers.

Reflections of Erma