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Women at work

Barbara Cooley copyIt’s not the hushed, conspiratorial sound of men in boardrooms or the exalted “C” suites.  It’s the squeal of greeting, laughter and recognition; the high-pitched tone of excitement.

It’s not the back-slapping, checking-you-out-for-the-right-spot to insert the knife of betrayal, or firm handshake/secret test of strength of men in suits.  It’s the hugs and hands on the arms of old friends, the hugs and hands on the arms of soon-to-be friends.

It’s not the jostling of men for place in a hierarchy of power or even just in line for the restroom. It’s the sending forward of the woman doing the most desperate dance in the Ladies Room line, the woman best prepared for the book pitch.

It’s not the stampede to get to the front of the room or a seat at the head table.  It’s the invitation to the person all alone to join a table of strangers; it’s the speaker everyone wants to meet showing her complete lack of pretense by joining the group at the table by the kitchen.

It’s not the arm shielding the test answers so others can’t see; it’s not the “I made it on my own so you’ll have to make it on your own.” It’s the finger pointing out the correct answer, it’s the suggestions and ideas, and the “here’s what worked for me” comments.  It’s the generosity of “I made it, you can, too, and here’s how.”

PitchapaloozaIt’s not the heartless critique of a flawed presentation or a failed marketing campaign on Fifth Avenue.  It’s the standing ovation and hooting and cheering as a show of support for the frightened woman who ventures out of her home and onto a limb. It’s her female audience saying, “We won’t let you die alone out there.”

It’s the quiet murmur of collaboration, the hand on the shoulder in support, the set-up for the punch line, the laughter that says I know what you mean, the applause that says you nailed it, now keep going…

It’s the filling of empty cups (okay, and wine glasses, too) and it’s the shoring up of others’ confidence and self-esteem.  It’s the healing of wounded parts, the sharing of insecurities and doubts, and it’s the rekindling of each other’s spirits when our inner flames have gone out.

It’s different from other workshops and conferences; it’s the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. You might mistake it for fun and games and nothing more, but your estimation would fall foolishly short. It’s the sound of joy, laughter, friendship and support. It’s the joyous sight and sound of women at work.

— Barbara Cooley

Barbara Cooley is a writer and personal historian who manages to find the humor in life even when her bread lands butter side down. Widely published in neighborhood newsletters, and the occasional local newspaper lost and found, Barbara has also published several pieces in publications known only to an elite few. As the owner of Your Life & Times, Barbara helps people capture, preserve and share their family’s story through photographs, heirlooms, recipes, memories and more. She lives and works in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she and her husband, Jim, share their home with rescue dog, Tai, who enjoys the bread on the floor no matter which side it lands on.

Wannabe Erma Bombeck

Suzette Martinez Standring(Reposted by permission of Suzette Martinez Standring. This piece was syndicated this week through GateHouse Media.)

Wannabe you. Do you ever wish you were somebody else? Maybe it’s not a bad thing.

Recently, close to 400 people felt that way about the late Erma Bombeck, whose wit was forged on the hot anvil of motherhood, a state known for its sweat and tedium. Erma knew you could either break out laughing or crack up in other ways. The widely syndicated humor columnist and author died on April 22, 1996, yet she remains a standard bearer for light and laughter. Erma “wannabes” are legion.

Recently I went to the biennial Erma Bombeck Writers’ Conference at the University of Dayton, Erma’s alma mater. A ballroom full of humor writers has strong therapeutic value. Aside from the thrill of big-name speakers and programs, the energy carried something uniquely “Bombeckian,” a rare camaraderie among strangers to befriend, connect and help each other. Being a veteran of many conferences, it’s my observation one is lucky to pal around with one or two new people. The Erma lovefest set me to musing.

Was it because Erma’s adult children, Matt, Betsy, Andyand other family members always attend? Phil Donahue of talk show fame shared memories of Erma as his friend and neighbor all those years ago. Erma came alive on his TV clips with insights timeless, classic and hilarious. Was it a mass hypnosis of warm and fuzzy?

I think I have it. “Bombeckian” energy plugs into permission to be real. That started with Erma, and I would sum up her legacy as show up with your hair down and heart open. Conference banners read, “You can write!” It’s the famous affirmation from University of Dayton professor Brother Tom Price to a then young and insecure Erma Bombeck. One sentence changed her life.

No matter what we do, it’s common to feel unworthy. How many times have I heard, “Who am I to [fill in the blank]? Or “I’m nobody special.” Dreams ooze into nothingness because of a perceived lack of experience or credentials, or gee, all the interesting stuff happens to other people. This is where Erma reveled in beige. She once wrote, “I wondered what I had that was unique and ironically enough, I discovered something. I was ordinary, painfully middle of the road, bare-boned Ohio Midwest beige, Our Town ordinary … Ordinary. That was to be my turf.”Erma, typewriter

When I think of the subject of motherhood, what can be said that hasn’t already been said? Yet family life is ever fresh through the generations. Erma Bombeck is a woman who spun gold from life’s everyday filaments, and thousands still follow her light. That weekend I understood it’s not just about being funny. It’s about memorable connection. It’s that no one should feel alone, and laughter is the warm wrap offered in the cold. Erma mastered “this is me” and her message still gives that permission to others. This week will mark 18 years since she passed. Wanting to be like Erma Bombeck — in ways beyond writing — is a very, very good thing.

— Suzette Martinez Standring

Suzette Martinez Standring, part of the 2014 EBWW faculty, is the award-winning author  of The Art of Opinion Writing: Insider Secrets from Top Op-Ed Columnists and The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists. She’s the former president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and writes a national spirituality blog and newspaper columns for GateHouse Media. “My writing goal is bring folks together, think outside the box and laugh at ourselves through the bonds of faith,” she says.

Worshipping at the Erma Bombeck altar

Gina Barreca(This piece by Gina Barreca originally appeared in The Huffington Post on April 18, 2014. Reposted by permission of the author.)

The difference between women’s humor and men’s humor is the difference between revolution and revolt. It’s the difference, in other words, between Erma Bombeck and The Three Stooges.

I’ve worshipped at the Bombeck altar since reading her three-times-per week columns in the newspaper when I was a kid, so to have delivered the keynote speech at the conference held in her honor two years ago was such a privilege that I decided to go back and give three talks this year.

This year’s 2014 conference at the University of Dayton was so much fun many of the sessions, filled with hundreds of women (and dozens of men) were probably illegal in Ohio.

Not that it takes all that much to get women laughing. When you put three women together for more than 13 seconds, we’re hilarious — and we’re unstoppable. We’re laughing so hard we have to wipe away our mascara and cross our arms under our bust for extra support. Yet there are guys all over America going around saying “Whatsamatter, honey, can’t you take a joke?” when his female companion doesn’t laugh at the work of Adam Carolla (“The reason why you know more funny dudes than funny chicks is that dudes are funnier than chicks”), Jerry Lewis (When asked about his favorite female comics, Jerry Lewis responded “Cary Grant… Burt Reynolds… I don’t have any”) or The Three Stooges.

Believe me when I say that women really do not like the Three Stooges. If you’re sitting next to a woman who’s cooing, “Oh, darling, I simply adore the Three Stooges,” she’s faking it. In fact, I believe you can eliminate blood tests at the Olympics by merely showing The Stooges: you laugh, you play on the men’s team. Women do not do the eye-poking, head-banging, butt-slamming humor that the Three Stooges do so well.

Have you ever seen two women go up to each other at a conference, a wedding, or networking event and, by way of greeting, say, “Pull my finger?”

Men do it all the time. In the Three Stooges paradigm, men insult each other by way of indicating affection.

“Hey Frankie, you’ve had that jacket since 1992. I’ll buy you a new suit just so I don’t have to look at those stripes!” That’s their way of saying, “Hi, how ya doing, how’s the family?” And it’s impossible to insult Frankie because he’s going, “Suit’s still good. Can’t button it, but it fits all right.”

If you say to a woman, “Barbara, you’ve been wearing that suit since 1992,” Barbara will lock herself in the bathroom until she can order new clothes from a catalog. She won’t think it’s a funny joke.

Actually, men often think women don’t have a sense of humor because women rarely tell jokes.

Instead, like Erma Bombeck, women tell stories.

We have totally different ways of communicating. When a woman says, “Let me tell you something funny,” you better sit down and pour yourself a cup of coffee. You’re going to be there for quite some time.

Erma Bombeck wrote humor challenging the underlying assumptions of traditional domesticity. While some of it can be placed in the self-effacing tradition (“After marriage, I added 30 pounds in nine months, which seemed to indicate that I was either pregnant or going a little heavy on the gravy”), her essays often contained less sympathy and more bite than the conventional “good mother” was meant to possess (“So you swallowed the plastic dinosaur out of the cereal box. What do you want me to do, call a vet?”).

When Bombeck quipped, “I don’t think women outlive men… It only seems longer,” she challenged the system that would have us believe women live easy lives.

Women’s humor at this last conference, where the brilliant Patricia Wynn Brown was the MC, went from the riotous yet moving stand-up of Judy Carter to the erudite inspiration of author Suzanne Braun LevineMs. Magazine‘s first editor, Ilene “Gingy” Beckerman, author of Love, Loss and What I Wore and dozens of panels and talks in between. The casual conversation — the heart of the conference — was about everything from politics, crowd-sourcing, blogging, publicity, deadlines, time/work/sex balance to chin hairs, a topic about which I had a few words to offer.

Humor, the conference proved, is everywhere. And Bombeck taught women to forage for humor — to find it, to hunt for it, to gather it up in its raw state.

Author of When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home, A Marriage Made in Heaven … or Too Tired For an Affair and All I Know About Animal Behavior I learned in Loehmann’s Dressing Room, Bombeck’s column ran in over 900 newspapers and she became the best friend of every harried, fraught, overworked and imperfect woman in the world.

I’ll take Bombeck’s fresh laugh over Moe’s whack to the forehead any day.

— Gina Barreca

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a feminist scholar who has written eight books. She regularly writes columns for the Hartford Courant, The Huffington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Psychology Today. In 2012, she served as a keynoter at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and returned to be part of the faculty in 2014. Learn more about Gina here.

Phil Donahue saved my writing soul

Katie MayerI went to the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop desperately seeking my funny. Not sure what to expect, but there was plenty of funny to go around.

When you’re surrounded by 300+ women writers and a handful of men all of whom are genetically talented, it has the distinct possibility to leave you crying in the bathroom. Forever alone. A girl and her cellphone. And a quite possibly a cocktail.

The Erma groupies had the goods, and it was more than a little intimidating: books and columns and syndication and by-lines. Comics and screenplays and blogs and podcasts. Thousands of followers. YouTube and fan clubs.They had proof.

I got nuthin’. And not only that, I had lost my funny and was dying, quite literally it seemed, to try and get it back. I was counting on Erma to come through: help me find my funny.

After Sandy Hook, I could no longer poke fun at the town I love to call home. It’s not easy to make fun of everyday life when that life stops abruptly with a simple, non-assuming text alert: LOCKDOWN.

So when Ermies asked what I wrote, I told them I was an advertising copywriter: ‘I’m the kind of writer who gets paid.’ It was all the funny I could muster.

A couple pressed. What do you WANT to do? What do you LIKE to write? I so wanted to answer honestly: I write congressman and senators. I write f***ing a**hole board of ed members from neighboring towns who think it’s funny to make ammunition jokes to grieving parents. I write letters to the editor and speeches about gun violence and blog about it sometimes, to Paul Revere warn people: WE WERE JUST LIKE YOU!!! Newtown is you! Don’t you get it? This could happen to you because it damn well happened to me!! This is not some made-for-TV movie; this is my life and it will be yours if we don’t do something now!

But it’s the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and these people are funnnnnnyyy! Everyone is a comic writer! People laughing, hugging and drinking, and everyone seemed to already know each other. Birds of a feather, you know? This was the place to be — surrounded by talented people not afraid to share what they know.

I’m telling you, my tongue swelled up to the size of my a** and 26 funerals of tears were right beneath the surface every single time someone asked what I wrote. So I asked them instead, and they all answered the same: “I’m a humor writer, we all are all,” one writer waved her hand to include the crowded room. “Like them, like Erma!” Family, work, marriage, school, kids, sports, divorce. I wanted to say that. I used to do that. But not anymore.

I did not belong here. I did not belong anywhere. 

Phil Donahue to the rescue. Seriously, who wudda thunk it? Selected as the keynote speaker because he and Erma were Dayton neighbors and lifelong friends. He talked about love, friendship and his never-ending admiration for Erma, her groundbreaking work, her bravery to say what hadn’t been said and the power of the written word. “This power is in your hands,” he said. “You have the distinct opportunity to write about everyday life and share your stories.” And because we had the talent, we have the obligation, the responsibility, to do so. Or something like that. I don’t know really, because all of a sudden, in a room of 400 talented writers, he was talking to me. Just to me.

And then he said something about putting your children on a school bus expecting them to be safe, to come home, and when they don’t …

Can. Not. Breathe.

A writer gently puts her hand on my shoulder. One of the first but far from the last of powerful, life-changing and life-affirming moments of the conference. I was sad, yet so very determined to tell our story, because it is only through our stories, funny or not, that the world can become a better place.

My three days in Dayton were extraordinary, and when the laughter died down I learned this above all: the line between tragedy and comedy does exist, and while laughing in the face of any horror is nearly impossible, the only way through the tears and darkness is with laughter and light.

*Please commit to doing any action possible to make a positive change where you live, so our story doesn’t become your story. Join a group in your community. Send an email. Be a friend. Find a cause. Share on Facebook. Hold a sign. Make a difference.

— Kate Mayer

Kate Mayer is a writer in limbo, trying to find that delicate spot between writing what she loves and paying the bills. An irreverent storyteller with a bad mouth and big heart, she was selected to read at the 2012 NYC Listen To Your Mother Show. Today Kate is a forever ambassador for her home of Newtown, Conn., and dedicated advocate for gun violence prevention. She attended EBWW2014 in a desperate search for her funny, and yet discovered so much more.

An open letter to Mr. Bombeck

Brown, Patricia WynnDear Mr. Bombeck,

Who wouldn’t love you! When you came to the first EBWW conference and spoke, you said right out of the shoot: “Sometimes I feel like Prince Phillip.”  And, of course, you meant you followed behind your love, Erma. Yet, you did an outstanding job in your talk that day and at each conference you attended you have won the hearts of the attendees.

You were unable to attend this 2014 conference, yet everyone in the room fell in love with you anyway. Why? Because you are like Cary Grant, who once spilled a drink on Erma. Matt told me about that. You have the special something that appeals to people. I think what you have is a very good spirit about you, and it is there even when you are not.Bill_Bombeck

Our conference this year was a hit. God bless Teri Rizvi, rightfully crowned HOMECOMING QUEEN this year. We were all so sorry you could not attend. I missed you very much. As I have written to you, you are my Atticus Finch. Every girl I know wanted an Atticus Finch for a father. I believe with all of my heart that you are that to your three children. Some dads want to be Atticus, but they have problems that prevent them from doing so. In your case, you could be that for your kids. It shows. To see your three kids with all of the people at the conference and how they respect every person, and honor their mother with their attendance, and somehow accept me, well…as my mother would say if she were here: “Those are some good kids there, those Bombecks.”

Which brings me to the petition the Princess Louise Lucas from San Diego started. (I did not bribe her.)

Princess Louise started a petition to ensure I could move into your basement and be adopted, even if you do not have a basement. There are four pages of signatures. They can vouch for me. I am quiet (when sleeping), neat (always), I love your kids (they are giving me advice about my Wild Irish Rose son), and of course I adore Norma, your secretary.  And Cousin Dee Dee and I want to sit on a swing and talk and tell stories as she did with Erma when they were kids.

Done deal.

So when I move into your basement, once you sign the papers, I will be steadfast and true. I will abide by the rules of the house. I will pick up after myself.  I will not tell too many stories at dinner (although I have some good ones). And I will honor Erma all the days of my life.

You see, Erma got me through. When our own son, BOY WONDER, was going through his crazy days of fun and hijinks, I would read Erma to calm me down. Any story would do, but the ones about Andy helped most. You know what I mean.

Mr. Bombeck, you mean the world to me…and not in a stalker way. You raised kids who make me feel like I am an OK person and welcome at their table. You have supported the conference and you support writers. You are the BOMB…eck. And that is a good thing.

I am mailing you the petition that Princess Louise, in a tiara, passed around the conference via U.S. mail.

Know that every person who signed their names would do anything in the world to help you in any way.

Also, please tell Norma to write a book.

Love Always,

Patricia Ann Marie Wynn Brown
A wanna’ be daughter

— Patricia Wynn Brown

Patricia Wynn Brown is a performer, producer and author of two books, Hair-A-Baloo: The Revealing Comedy and Tragedy on Top of Your Head and Momma Culpa: One Mother Comes Clean and Makes her Maternal Confession. She has performed her humor-memoir Hair Theater® shows across the U.S. She is a featured humorist in a PBS documentary, A Legacy of Laughter, about the life and work of Erma Bombeck. She also is a three-time winner of the James Thurber Summer Writing Contest. Her new DVD featuring women who have lost their hair to chemotherapy is called The Hairdo Monologues: When Monsieur Chemo Styles Her Hair. She served as emcee at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in 2012 and 2014.

At what price?

Cascade FallsCascade Falls, Bruce Ferber’s second novel, explores the failed promise of the American dream. Raised to believe that with hard work, anything is possible, a staggering number of Americans hate their jobs and see little chance of ever escaping the grind. In his tragicomic follow up to the laugh-ridden Elevating Overman, Ferber asks the question: “How does giving up our dreams affect our relationships and our psyches?”

Writing is messy business

bombeck_2014_merchandise“Writing is messy business.”

That’s how “Agnes” cartoonist Tony Cochran describes the inspiration behind a new commemorative cartoon that he created with “Funky Winkerbean” and “Crankshaft” cartoonist Tom Batiuk for the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. The two cartoonists are part of the faculty.

A limited number of signed cartoons will be available for $15 at the workshop, with all proceeds benefitting the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop Endowment Fund.Bombeck cartoon

In addition, “You Can Write!” coffee mugs ($9.99), a set of 12 Erma notecards with inspirational quotes ($10), water bottles ($5) and short- and long-sleeved T-shirts ($16.99 and $19.99)  will be offered exclusively through the University of Dayton Bookstore at the workshop.

Approximately 350 writers from around the nation are traveling to Dayton for the sold-out April 10-12 workshop. It’s held biennially in Erma Bombeck’s honor at the University of Dayton, her alma mater.

For the love of Erma

Berk, NancyFor Erma Bombeck fans, is carrying a wealth of interviews about the legendary humorist, whose writing captured the foibles of family life in a way that made us laugh at ourselves.

In an exclusive interview, entertainment analyst Dr. Nancy Berk chats with the Bombeck family about their memories.

The children recall leading a normal life — and were even a bit oblivious to their mother’s growing fame as a writer. “Someone asked what she did and I said she was a syndicated communist,” her son Matt remembers.

The entire interview is available on Berk’s showbiz podcast, “Whine at 9.” Erma, typewriter

What are the chances that two rising stars would live on the same block in suburban Centerville, Ohio, before hitting it big?  Just days before returning to his roots to keynote the April 10 opening night of the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, TV talk show icon Phil Donahue reminisces about living across the street from the Bombecks.

“The arc of our careers pretty much coincided, although she was probably ahead of me,” Donahue tells Berk for a “Showbiz Analysis” piece on “She quickly became a phenom. Everybody wanted her. She wound up on refrigerator doors all over the world, really.”

Listen to the Donahue interview on “Whine at 9.”

The thoughts of eight of this year’s faculty at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop are featured in another online piece.

Author and television comedy writer Anna Lefler calls Bombeck “the godmother of domestic humor.” Veteran sitcom writer and producer Bruce Ferber notes that no writer “epitomizes suburban comedy” more than Bombeck.

The first editor of Ms. magazine Suzanne Braun Levine became an Erma fan in the 1970s when the columnist campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment. “She traveled all over the country and she did what Erma Bombeck can do that nobody else could do — which is that she diffused this controversial issue and softened people up,” Levine says in the story.

Noting that the ERA was just 24 words, Levine recalls Bombeck’s memorable quip. “She delivered one of the great lines of all time (when she said) ‘no 24 words have ever been so misunderstood since ‘one size fits all.’”

To listen to all the faculty interviews, click here.

What inspired Berk, who’s on the workshop’s faculty, to shine a national focus on Erma’s legacy and the popular biennial workshop held by her alma mater? This year’s workshop sold out in 12 hours.

“The power of this conference suggested to me the need to archive something that’s incredibly special,” said Berk, who’s both a clinical psychologist and an author. “From her family’s support in carrying her legacy forward to the people who teach at the workshop to the writers who come to learn the craft of writing, this is an unusual and tremendous effort. And its success occurs on so many levels — personal, professional and societal. Writers are inspired, and even the most seasoned professionals leave with ideas on how to develop and better showcase their talent for the world to enjoy. This conference really is the gift that keeps on giving.”

— Teri Rizvi

Teri Rizvi is the founder of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and executive director of strategic communications at the University of Dayton.

Reflections of Erma