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The importance of doggy bags

(Reposted by permission of the author. This humorous essay first appeared in the The Huffington Post on Oct. 26, 2012.)

Warning: This post is far from appetizing, but it has definite curb appeal.

A few days ago, one of my Facebook posts exploded with comments. It set a new record that I never saw coming. I’ve posted funnier and more insightful material. I’ve written and chatted with fascinating celebrities. But it wasn’t celebrity scoop, it was a dog walker’s failure to scoop that caused this Facebook stir.

Here is the post: “This has been an amazing day capped off by my successful undercover sting operation to identify the dog owner who visits my yard regularly and apparently has an aversion to plastic bags. Now adding ‘detective,’ ‘forensic psychologist’ and ‘lecturer’ to my resumé.”

I must confess that after months of cleaning up lawn deposits in the exact same spot, I was obsessed with tracking down the culprit and thrilled to catch him and his dog red-handed, and red-faced. Interestingly, violators have only two responses. The first — “This is the only time it’s ever happened.” And the second — “This is the only time I’ve ever forgotten a bag.” Uh huh.

As a psychologist, I was fascinated by a) the gratification I felt from pulling off a successful sting operation and b) my friends’ enthusiastic support, outrage and suggestions. Why was that? And why did so many people feel the need to weigh in? Here’s my analysis…

1. Any topic that includes dogs is a winning topic.

2. Everyone’s been a victim of bad manners. And when you’ve been playing by the rules for years, it’s annoying to watch others break them.

3. People value their property and resent those who treat it like a litter box, and them like a clean-up crew.

4. A violator’s sense of entitlement and scramble for excuses frustrates the victim. There’s rarely an apology or a pick-up, and that just fuels the fire.

5. People love to give suggestions on how to handle inconsiderate people. This is because a) they love being creative and b) you’re the one who’d suffer the backlash from their solutions.

Some might think that this is a silly topic. Of course people should focus on more important things than weighing in on dog deposits, but this fervor reflects people’s passion for common courtesy and respect.

The dialogue made more than a few chuckle because, let’s face it, poop happens. Most of us just don’t want to step in it.

— Nancy Berk, Ph.D.

Nancy Berk is a clinical psychologist, author of College Bound and Gagged and a blogger for The Huffington Post, USA Today College, MORE magazine and TravelingMom.com. A columnist, podcast host (“Whine at 9,” “College Mom Minute”) and speaker, Nancy has used her comedic touch on stage in places like TEDx and 30 Rock. She served on the 2012 EBWW faculty.

Comedy writing 101

(This is an excerpt from the preface of Brad Ashton’s book, The Job of a Laughtime: The Complete Comedy Writer. The book offers “nine simple lessons on creating your own comedy from gags to sitcoms.” Reprinted by permission of the author.)

Do you ever wake up in the morning feeling you want to do some crazy things, like phoning the maternity hospital and asking if they deliver? Or buying a roasting turkey and taking it to a taxidermist to be stuffed? Or taking up a collection to buy toupees for bald eagles?

If you do, you have the makings of a good comedy writer.

You will be the kind of person asking rhetorical questions like has Old McDonald ever been cautioned for keeping a noisy farm? Is it a plastic surgeon’s job to pick your nose for you? Would you expect something in mint condition to have a hole in it? Are Sunday drivers actually Friday drivers still looking for a place to park? Is a rare coin something you have left over after paying your taxes?

You’ll begin to wonder whether Jewish kids have piggy banks, or whether Snow White had an eighth dwarf who was gay and named “Sweetie.” Or when a policeman arrests a mime artist, does he tell him he has the right to remain silent?

Doctors tell us laughter is the best medicine. But you won’t need seven years at medical school to qualify as a dispenser of that medicine. Anyone can create laughter. It’s not a gift or talent you have to be born with. It can be taught.

But even if you’ve no inclination to be a humorous scribe, creating comedy provides other wonderful benefits. Most women, for instance, will tell you that the thing they found most attractive in a man was his sense of humor. “He made me laugh a lot.”

Many of us have been prevailed upon to “Say a few words…” at a family or social gathering. If you can make those few words funny, you will be remembered and head the ever-popular guest list.

Comedy is even appropriate at funerals. I remember attending Jimmy Jewel’s cremation where fellow comedian Alfred Marks’ eulogy included, “I spent six months co-starring with Jimmy in The Sunshine Boys. He was such a hypochondriac that he even put in his will that he had to be buried next to a doctor.” It got a huge laugh and helped make a mournful occasion into a merry one.

I am frequently asked what I think of the modern day stand-up comedians. My usual retort is that I try not to think of them. Too many rely on gags and routines about subjects that used to be banned on television, and I think still ought to be. Humor based on drugs, overt sex and other bodily functions have their rightful place in nightclubs and stag (parties) where  the audience expect that sort of thing. But when it’s served up on TV, it usually scores low in the ratings because it is too embarrassing for families to watch together. I have, therefore, in (my) book tended to veer away from that vein of humor and concentrate solely on the kind of comedy which I think is much more acceptable to a mass audience and can be written and performed without offense.

I loved writing this book and passing on the lessons I’ve learned over half a century of keeping comedians from being speechless.

— Brad Ashton

Brad Ashton has written more than 1,000 TV and radio shows during his half-century career as a comedy writer. He’s also the author of How to Write Comedy.

Prescription for laughter

Internationally recognized speaker, author and stress management and humor consultant Loretta LaRoche will present “Life Is Short, Wear Your Party Pants” as the morning keynote speaker at the 12th Annual Speaking of Women’s Health Conference in Dayton, Ohio.

The conference will be held at the Dayton Convention Center 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3. Tickets are $35.  Conference and ticket information are available online or contact Emily Milkis at 937-220-1701 or emilkis@thinktv.org.

The hysterically funny LaRoche has twice keynoted the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, the last time in 2010.

Using humor to reframe a stressful situation, LaRoche captures a new perspective on the difficult parts of life.  Her teaching style, credibility and incontestable humor are integral parts to her compelling presence.  Organizations worldwide use Loretta’s prescription for laughter to manage stress in the workplace and improve morale.  Her energetic conferences and keynotes serve to improve learning skills and leave her audiences in an enthusiastic frame of mind.

The Speaking of Women’s Health Conference was developed to help women to make informed decisions about health, well-being and personal safety for themselves and their families. This year’s conference, “Share Good Health,” includes health screenings, exhibits, 19 breakout sessions, lunch and a gift bag — making for a full day of pampering, camaraderie and education.

The Speaking of Women’s Health Conference is hosted by ThinkTV with supporting sponsorship from Premier Health Partners and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, with featured sponsorship from CareSource Foundation. Additional sponsorship is appreciated from DP&L, Premier Health Specialists, Freund, Freeze and Arnold, and LifeLine Screenings.

ThinkTV is the most widely used non-profit educational, cultural and informational service in southwestern Ohio.

Midlife, mood swings and mood rings

Anyone who watched the ’80s chick flick “Steel Magnolias”  is familiar with Shirley MacLain’s character “Weezer” when she wanders into Dolly Parton’s beauty salon, armed with a bag of tomatoes and a scowl that would make Scrooge look like Glinda the Good Witch. When Sally Field’s character calls her on it, MacLaine, belching after a long swig of coke, blurts:  “I’m fine! I’m an old Southern woman! We’re supposed to grow vegetables in the dirt and wear funny hats. Nothing’s wrong with me, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for the past 30 years!”

Serving as a reminder of my recent mood swings, my kids downloaded this scene and simultaneously send it to my Iphone whenever they think I’m “over the edge.”   “I’d rather be over the edge than over the hill!” I yell in response to no one in particular, while folding my 5’9” daughter’s skinny jeans and thongs, placing them next to my elastic waist denim shorts and granny underwear. (I’m having a “fat month” as I write this; next month I plan on tossing anything that has elastic in my closet even if I have to walk around unable to breathe.)

While MacLaine’s character was probably past menopause and my friends and I are just on its cusp, her line defines what I call “the mood swing years.” Sounds like a ’70s Woodstock throwback term, right?  In fact, the whole hippie theme has made a comeback, although I think the politically correct term now is “Boho.” Case in point: For Mother’s Day this year my kids bought me a mood ring, but not because it’s fashion-forward, even though the look is called retro, which seems like an oxymoron to me. They got it to monitor my pre-menopausal mood swings. They know that blue or green indicates it’s ok to ask me for money or the keys to the car, and orange or red means to stay overnight at their friend’s house.

The “mood swing years,” somewhere between the ages of 40 and 50, our sense of wisdom, self confidence and self worth rises, while everything else droops, falls, shrinks and sags. At 5 foot, I can’t afford to shrink even a quarter of an inch. To help combat it, I’ve taken to yoga and Pilates, hoping that perhaps standing on my head and elongating my spine preserves what little height I do have, while simultaneously getting rid of the “muffin top” that has resulted from indulging in too many trips to the bakery and soft pretzel factory.  The only good thing about that is my fingers swell from the salt and I can’t wear the mood ring, so my husband and kids never know whether their dinner will be Chinese takeout eaten directly from the carton with chopsticks, or a four-course gourmet dinner served on my grandmother’s china.

Getting older has its perks. Metaphorically speaking, we’re more comfortable in our own skin. (From a physical standpoint, laser therapy is the save-all). We’re less concerned about what other people think and more concerned about how we keep our own minds forward-thinking. Google has become the new senior wonder tool.  By mastering the art of manipulating this search engine, we give the impression we’re keeping up and delude ourselves and others into thinking no one considers us “over the hill.”

Although truth be told, by the time we think we know all there is to know, senility sets in and we forget it all anyway.

—Susan Haas Bates

Pennsylvania writer Susan Haas Bates describes herself as a writer, mom and wife in midlife mayhem.

From the irreverent trenches of motherhood

Anna Lefler, author of The CHICKtionary: From A-Line to Z-Snap, the Words Every Woman Should Know, will be offering humorous takes on motherhood on a new Nick Jr. show that launches Oct. 1.

“Parental Discretion With Stefanie Wilder-Taylor” airs on Mondays at 8 p.m. (PST) and 11 p.m. (EST). It’s repeated on Fridays at the same time. The show is part of a new block of comedy programming on Nick Jr. dubbed NickMom that’s aimed at mothers.

“Stefanie is a fantastic comedian — as well as author — and her self-deprecating style is a perfect match for parenting humor,” Lefler says. “She’s a natural as the host of the show, which features a variety of takes on motherhood, including a monologue, hidden camera segments, entertaining looks at vintage commercials and more.”

Lefler, who served on the 2012 EBWW faculty, will appear in several episodes of the new show. “I’m in the segment in which Stefanie conducts a discussion among three funny moms on a specific topic of motherhood, such as kids’ birthday parties and traveling with children,” she says.

Lefler describes her segments as “unscripted, entertaining exchanges about contemporary motherhood.” The panel retells “instances from our own parenthood experience in which we might (not) have turned in our finest motherhood performance,” she says. “The women who are in this segment are comedians and comic actresses, and the results are fun and irreverent.”

“Parental Discretion With Stefanie Wilder-Taylor” is produced “by folks who have written for SNL, SCTV and many other laugh-inducing acronyms,” Lefler says.

Lefler is an award-winning writer and humorist. Her work has appeared online at Salon.com, McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel and Funny Not Slutty, and her essays have been nationally syndicated. She has performed standup comedy in Los Angeles clubs, including the Hollywood Improv and the Comedy Store. She writes the popular humor blog Life Just Keeps Getting Weirder. Read her blog posting about the show.

“It’s a thrill to be a part of the show,” she says. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work with Stefanie and the amazing writing/producing team behind the show.  I can’t imagine a lovelier  — or funnier — experience.”

Are you America’s next author?

eBookMall.com has launched the first annual “America’s Next Author” competition, one that’s modeled after the popular “American Idol.”

In the search for new talent, the digital book retailer is reinventing the standard writing contest. Readers judge entries even before the official jury, and authors will get valuable feedback about their writing.

“This is not your average writing contest. In most writing contests, authors are left in the dark without ever knowing what other people entered or why they didn’t win,” said Martijn Leenders, managing director of eBookMall.com. “We wanted to change all that and make our writing contest a transparent and social experience.”

America’s Next Author is now accepting entries for the world’s first social writing contest. Unlike standard writing contests, the winning story will be chosen based on votes from fans and readers. Entering the contest is free, and the grand prize is $5,000. Contestants can get started here.

The competition includes eight nomination rounds in which the top-ranked author of each week will be nominated for the finals. Authors can join during any week of the competition, but joining sooner will increase their chances of winning. In this open system, even if an author’s story doesn’t get nominated during an initial round, it will remain in the competition until the final nomination round.

In addition to being judged by visitors, stories will be read by a panel of experienced professionals from the publishing industry who will be overseeing the contest. These judges will read entries and provide feedback to authors. They will also nominate four additional wildcard authors, adding them into the final rounds of competition.

“Getting feedback from the judges and readers will be a great learning opportunity for new authors. On top of that, while contestants are gathering votes online, they will also be creating worldwide exposure for themselves, which will be a career boost whether they make it to the finals or not,” said Leenders.

As in all writing contests, well-written, engaging stories are essential, but America’s Next Author is different in one important way: contestants can influence their chances of winning by mobilizing their fans online. Encouraging friends and family to vote will be crucial to an author’s success.

To enter the contest, writers can sign up here and enter a short story between 2,500 and 5,000 words. Participants can begin entering stories on Sept. 13, 2012, and voting begins on Oct. 9, 2012. A unique aspect of this contest is that people can join during any state of the competition, which gives authors plenty of opportunity to participate in America’s Next Author even if they’ve missed the first deadline.

To see the complete official rules for America’s Next Author, click here.

eBookMall.com offers digital books from the world’s biggest publishers, including Random House, Simon & Schuster and MacMillan. Books are available in PDF and ePub formats for Windows and Mac computers, Android tablets, dedicated eReaders and mobile phones.

Trashing the recycling

CAUTION: Rant ahead.

There are days when I just want to throw everything in our apartment away. And I mean everything. But that is not the generation my children are growing me up in.

I have always thought of myself as a good citizen in recycling terms. I’ve rinsed the bean and tomato residue out of thousands of tin cans and tossed hundreds of thousands of plastic bottles into blue bins.

But that was when it was easy. We lived in a house, and those recycling crates were in the garage, and not only were they picked up on a weekly basis, I didn’t have to look at the building terraces of polyethylene and steel on a minute-by-minute basis. Now we are in an apartment, a place that was supposed to be temporary quarters. A place where the recycling truck does not venture. So the recycling we collect is not in the garage, it is in the middle of my kitchen.

Recent conversations have gone something like this: “Mom, why did you just throw out that jar of peanut butter?” Then follows a digging spree, and a rescue of not only the peanut butter jar, but even more evidence of my sins. Enter huge, disappointed sighs as said child emerges with her arms full of plastic and tin (Gee, I thought only mom’s were capable of such melodramatic disappointment). Then she brightens. “I know, I can really recycle this big jar and make a marker holder out of it!”

That’s terrific. It will sit right beside the cans and jars and egg cartons that have found potential second lives as pencil holders, pen holders, highlighter holders and earring containers. I say “potential” because the completion of these projects takes about as much time as they would otherwise need to biodegrade in a typical landfill. And has my crafty daughter considered what will ultimately happen to the jars and cans she glues and paints when she goes off to college? Should I inform her that they will no longer be fit for proper recycling and will head directly to the landfill and leak even more chemicals into the ground because of her purist artistic and ecological sentiments? Seriously, by throwing them away now, I’m just avoiding the middleman.

There is no point mentioning any of that or the growing mountain in her room, so I shrug and go back to making dinner. I empty a couple cans of diced tomatoes into my pot of onions and garlic, and toss them, unrinsed, into the garbage. That’s right. The real garbage.

“Mom! Are you kidding me?” Said child retrieves the cans, rinses them along with her other dumpster-diving finds, and places them so very carefully on the teetering edge of the 150 cans and bottles she has been promising to take to the recycling center for three days. The row of overflowing paper bags is really getting to me, but I remain silent, hoping to make my point. Is there something else I can throw away? I know. A can of green chiles! I head to the pantry, almost tripping over the five brimming bags of recycling. I’m careful, though. There are no winners if those bags fall over.

Because the kitchen is small, I know the sixth bag my do-gooder starts will take a place at our kitchen table, and that’s where I must draw the line. Sure, some days a bag of freshly rinsed aluminum has more to say than one of my children. It sits straighter and keeps its elbows off the table, too. But family dinners are an important part of keeping the family cohesive.

In a further attempt at family cohesiveness, I’ve been summoning what I consider an admirable amount of restraint by not shoveling every single one of those tin cans into a heavy-duty contractor bag and heaving the entire contents into a dumpster. You heard me: a REGULAR dumpster.

The source of my frustration may be a little more complicated than I am letting on, because the fact is, I don’t want to stop with the “kitchen” recycling. Perhaps it has something to do with the way my two middle children create the same kinds of piles with ANYTHING, no matter where they are.

It would take a number of contractor bags, of course, but in my “fantasy cleanup,” after I finished with the kitchen, I would march directly into the real disaster zones. The bedrooms. And next? The designated teenage mode of transportation, not to be confused with a car, since it looks like something from an episode “Hoarders” on wheels.

Somewhere along the way, my kids became perfectly happy to wade through a thigh-deep mix of used, not-so-used and clean clothes, DVDs, books and actual garbage to get to their beds at night. And, even more to my surprise, it doesn’t embarrass them to ride around in a car that looks like a recycling center specifically for plastic bottles on the front passenger seat, and the mountain of donated clothing you’d typically see in the back of a Goodwill warehouse in the back seat.

Just so I’m clear: If I unleashed the contents of my teenagers’ rooms and the car they share into the world it would be like sending the Japanese debris field across the Pacific. The world would not be happy and CNN reporters would sit on our doorstep for months as they charted the movement of my childrens’ gym shorts to see where they landed and if they would take root. And trust me, with all the hormone-laced residue, they would not only take root, they would grow and support fully independent ecosystems.

So, I know this is just a fantasy, but some days I just want to give up. And throw. Everything. Out. Until a miracle happens. As if she knows where my can of chiles will be laid to rest, said child shakes her head and starts gathering up the five bags of recycling.

I turn back to my pot of onions, garlic, and tomatoes, and open the can of chiles. I don’t want to know – and refuse to watch – how she’ll manage to cram those bags into the already stuffed car.

That’s an entirely different rant.

— Ena Jones

Ena Jones writes middle grade fiction and occasional mom’s perspective pieces. She is also a moderator on Verlakay.com, a message board for children’s writers and illustrators.

My sanctuary

It seems I’m allergic to my house. I had a feeling I was, and now my worst fears are confirmed.  I’m allergic to dogs, cats, dust, mold and dust mites.

Ick. Dust mites?  You don’t take that one seriously until the doctor shows you a photo of a mite enlarged 100 percent. I’m surprised their office doesn’t have more people fainting.

Suffering from vertigo, clogged ear (try to imagine what it would feel like to have a very full water balloon stuffed into your ear), sniffles and watering eyes, I finally went to a specialist.  Apparently, like an addict, I need to hit bottom before I take action.

I was asked to lie on a table face down, and then the nice lady put dozens of pin pricks in my back.  She asked me to lie still for 15 minutes. Huh? Do nothing but itch for 15 minutes? Heaven. What woman with all my responsibilities is asked to just lie down and do nothing for 15 minutes?

So, it turns out my bedroom needs to be a “sanctuary” — free of all animals. (Technically, a dust mite is not an animal, but …)

When the doctor used the word “sanctuary,” my itchy eyes became big and round and hopeful. I’ve always wanted my room to be a sanctuary, but my cat, Pandy, can open my door. She has a secret little kitty tool kit. Combine that with advanced “rocking the door till it pops open” skills, and she’s in.

Once in, she pads her way to my glorious bed, leaps up and gives me “the look.” She smirks and her thought bubble says: yeah, I’m on the big bed. That’s right. OUR bed. And you are too lazy to get up and move me. I know you. Then she curls up and telepathically sends her dander up my nose.

But no more.  She’s banished to the guest room. Poor kitty.

I went to Target and bought every piece of dust mite bed covering. I cleaned the house like Heloise was coming for tea, picked up new allergy medicine and claimed my room back.  Next I’ll have to remodel several rooms, you know, in case there could be mold. Probably all new, beautifully upholstered furniture wouldn’t hurt.

It’s unfortunate that I won’t be able to clean the garage or the storage room anymore. Or enter antique stores (which I despise). But what’s a gal with allergies supposed to do?  I teach life balance and wellness. I can’t possibly go against doctor’s orders!  I really should spend as much time in my “sanctuary” as possible.  With a good book, perhaps. To heal.

Next week I go back to the allergist for a check up. What are the chances they will ask me to lie down for 15 minutes again?  I am desperately anticipating they will tell me that my only hope for a healthy season will be to buy a new Audi with surround sound and hypoallergenic upholstery — and ban all animals from it.

So, you know where this is going. I intend to milk this for all it’s worth. (Unless I’m allergic to milk). After all, I’ve lived with a water balloon in my ear and itchy eyes and a runny nose … and vertigo. Vertigo worse than Jodie Foster suffered in the movie “Contact” after she had to uncontrollably vibrate during take-off.

It’s time to take control. And a Claritin.

— Molly Cox

Molly Cox is a speaker, co-author of the book, Improvise This! How to Think on Your Feet so You Don’t Fall on Your Face and producer of the award-winning film, “Note to Self,” about self-care for caregivers.  She was the co-writer for the Mr. Rogers Lifetime Achievement Awards and writes the humor column for the National Speakers Association Minnesota monthly newsletter.

Reflections of Erma