Feeling a little blue because you can’t get your Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop fix this year? Gazing out the window, just longing for the opportunity to be inspired, stimulate your brain and hang out with other writers who “get” you?
Walk away from that window and come spend a few summer days in downtown Indianapolis for the 2015 National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) Conference, June 25-28. This annual gathering of columnists and bloggers from across the country features a jam-packed agenda that will foster your creative mojo, help you grow as a writer and give you amazing stories to tell all your friends. Seriously.
This year’s lineup of speakers is spectacular and includes: Chicago Tribune columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Schmich; Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners); Pulitzer Prize winner and photojournalist Bill Foley; Tony Messenger, editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; and Gene Seymour, film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. And that’s only the beginning.
Attendees will enjoy excursions to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Indiana State Museum and the Kurt Vonnegut Library, just to name a few. But perhaps the most alluring attraction comes in the form of the NSNC hospitality suite. Yes, that’s right — a haven where attendees can network and exchange ideas the old-fashioned way through personal conversation. Is there anything better?
You’ll also get some free time to use as you please, whether it’s exploring all that downtown Indy has to offer, or soaking in the beauty of The Alexander, a boutique hotel recognized for its emphasis on art and design. Guests will enjoy stunning accommodations, inspirational meeting spaces, unparalleled views of the city and an energetic vibe that will help make the weekend unforgettable.
So get away from that lonely window and give yourself the gift of connecting with other writers and forming lasting friendships. We can’t wait to see you there. To register, click here.
— Michelle Freed
Michelle Freed is a writer, humorist, journalist, social commentator, public speaker and occasional cheap therapist. Her contributions have appeared online and in a variety of publications including the Indianapolis Star, Kansas City Star, ProjectEve.com and AimingLow.com. She is also a playwright, having written, produced and performed the one-woman show, Come Dance with Me (But First Can I Borrow Your Pants?). Find her at MichelleFreed.com; Twitter @MichelleFreed; or Facebook at facebook.com/LifeStumbler.
Take my new smart phone, for instance. True, my ancient fliptop was beyond help, but did I really need a so-called “phone” that reports on the stock market, takes my pulse, lets me send texts, emails and question an otherworldly woman who doesn’t know the answers either? I can take photos with this “phone,” read a book or a map, listen to music, play games, get a weather report and watch a movie. The “phone” part of the phone seems incidental.
No one calls me.
My technical advisers — family — insisted it was time. So I bought a phone that seldom rings, and, when it does, I’m not sure how to answer it. Son-in-law Martin called a few days ago. “Hello,” I said to no one there. Three more calls, and we finally connected. Martin thought something was wrong since I never call him and I’d rung so many times. I said I was returning his calls.
He laughed. “Oh, must’ve been ‘butt dialing.’”
That same evening, our blank TV screen advised that our service was down. I’d figured that out because the screen was…um…blank. I called help and after intense questioning to identify myself and our equipment — think CIA interrogation — the young woman instructed, “Unplug the cable box from the power source.”
I followed the cable to the power strip. Done!
“Now, what is the bar code number on the back of the box?”
I couldn’t see a bar code. “Where would it be?” I asked.
“Upper right,” she said.
“Nope, nothing there.” I recited all the numbers I saw, but none was right.
I should say here, that the floor behind our TV is a nest of cables that coil around each other in an incestuous stranglehold. As I studied the entwined mess, I realized I had not only unplugged the wrong box, but I was looking for numbers on the wrong box, too.
I explained what I’d done. “Sorry,” I said, “but you should see what I’m dealing with here!” My laugh was hysteria-tinged because now I was wedged between wall and TV, sitting in a nest of dust bunnies. Getting out would not be pretty.
She giggled. “No problem,” she said. “Let me know when you’ve found the bar code number.”
“Bingo,” I yelled.
“Now tell me what you see on your screen,” she said.
“Hang on while I crawl around to the front.”
She explained the next steps as patiently as I hope she would explain to her own grandmother — service reconnecting, channels reloading, etc. “Wait 15 minutes before trying to select a channel,” she reminded, then bid me good night.
Next day, Bill, my husband’s companion, arrived to take Peter and Nobby to their weekly therapy dog nursing home visit. Bill and I chatted while we waited for Peter. Repetitive beeps came from behind Bill, but he wasn’t “pocket dialing.” No, he was leaning against the stove’s set-timer button.
A while later — I knew it was only mid-afternoon — when I looked at the stove’s clock, it read 6:15. Apparently Bill had “turned the other cheek” when he moved to the left, and in the doing had set the clock several hours ahead. This without a phone in his pocket! What a guy.
— Judy Clarke
Judy Clarke is a wife, mother of two daughters, grandmother to two grown grandchildren, reader, writer and blogger in southwest Virginia. Her two non-fiction books, Mother Tough Wrote the Book and That’s all she wrote, can be found on her friends’ and family’s shelves, and she’s working on a novel, But why? (That’s the title of the novel, not a question to self).
On Easter Sunday, I (known to Chloe as Poppie) drove from Long Island, N.Y., to the nation’s capital with my wife, Sue (Nini); our younger daughter, Lauren (Mommy); and, of course, Chloe (Chloe). We stayed with our older daughter, Katie (Aunt Katie), and her husband, Dave (Uncle Dave), who live and work in Washington.
Katie, a Washington Post reporter who until recently had covered the White House (she’s now on the campaign trail for the paper), got four tickets to the Easter Egg Roll, a national tradition dating back to the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, whose wife, known as Lemonade Lucy, banned alcoholic beverages from the White House. In keeping with a family tradition, Katie and Dave had them at their house.
The next day — which was 75 degrees and sunny, with a refreshing breeze and no humidity, a rarity in D.C. — Chloe, Lauren, Sue and I showed up at the waiting area, tickets in hand and ready to roll.
We had plenty of company. Over the course of the day, which began at 7:30 a.m., about 35,000 people converged on the White House grounds. We were in the last group — our time slot was 4:45-6:45 p.m. — but the line was still so long that we must have been in a different ZIP code.
At the checkpoint, Sue and Lauren had to empty their pocketbooks.
“I don’t carry a pocketbook,” I told one of the agents.
“That’s OK, sir,” he responded. “Empty your pockets.”
He went through my wallet.
“Please don’t harm the moths,” I said.
He kept a straight face and handed it back to me.
Even Chloe’s bag was searched.
“Those diapers aren’t mine,” I noted.
I’m surprised I wasn’t arrested.
As we waited in line, Lauren asked an Egg Roll volunteer named Sheila if Peppa Pig, Chloe’s favorite cartoon character, was still there.
“Yes,” Sheila replied.
“How about President and Mrs. Obama?” I asked.
“They were here this morning,” Sheila said.
“My granddaughter won’t mind,” I said. “She’ll be more excited to see Peppa.”
At that point, Chloe wasn’t excited about anything. In fact, she was sleeping in her stroller.
A volunteer named Jean offered to write Lauren’s phone number on Chloe’s wrist band in case Chloe got lost.
“I’m always being told to get lost,” I said. “Will you put my wife’s phone number on my wrist band?”
“No,” said Jean. “Nobody in your family is going to come and get you.”
I felt sorry for Jean, who said she had been there since the gates opened that morning. “It’s been a long day,” she said wearily. “After this, I’m going home and having a cocktail.”
“Where do you live?” I asked. “We’ll join you.”
“Come on over,” Jean said.
After about 45 minutes, we finally reached the South Lawn of the White House, which was swarming with excited kids, costumed characters, friendly volunteers, awestruck parents and one confused grandfather.
The star of the show — Chloe, of course — woke up as we approached the Egg Roll area. I had the honor of accompanying her.
A volunteer named Carolyn handed Chloe a wooden spoon so she could roll an orange hard-boiled egg down a grassy lane about 10 yards long. There were several other lanes, each with a spoon-wielding child and an adult.
The race was on. Or it would have been if I hadn’t dropped the egg in front of Chloe and across the starting line before the whistle blew.
“I cheated, didn’t I?” I said sheepishly.
“Yes, you did,” Carolyn replied.
Then she blew the whistle. The crowd roared.
“Come on, Chloe!” I cried, showing her how to roll the egg with her wooden spoon.
She’s only 2, so she didn’t quite get the hang of it at first, but she figured it out in pretty short order and — with help from Poppie — made her way toward the finish line. Sue and Lauren cheered her on.
Chloe didn’t win, but she got the ultimate compliment from Carolyn: “We saved the best for last.”
Only one thing could have been better — a photo op with Peppa Pig. Sure enough, the pink porker and her younger brother, George, were greeting their little fans in the shadow of the South Portico. Chloe hugged them both and posed for pictures.
At day’s end, she was back in her stroller, holding a commemorative wooden egg signed by the Obamas’ dogs, Bo and Sunny.
The little girl had the time of her life. So did I because, as Chloe would agree, that’s the way Poppie rolls.
— Jerry Zezima
Jerry Zezima, who served on the faculty at the 2010 EBWW, writes a humor column for the Stamford Advocate that is nationally syndicated through the McClatchy-Tribune News Service and regularly appears in the Huffington Post. He’s written two books, Leave it to Boomer and The Empty Nest Chronicles. He has won five humor-writing awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and was named EBWW’s Humor Writer of the Month twice. He is currently president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
First off, I do not like working with other people in anything.
I do not like depending on people because my grade could be affected. My grades are everything to me, and someone is not going to get in the way of my goals. If my partner/partners are slackers and become lazy in a class project, then I will a) become a nightmare partner and ride their back until something changes or b) I will take on their load and end up throwing them under the bus. Group projects are a nightmare for me. I do not like interacting with strangers, even though I know that comes with life, but these strangers have a piece of my grade resting in their hands.
Group projects also take too much time out of my planned day. I have to reset my whole schedule just to meet up with people for a little bit to talk about what we are doing and then I will not hear from them until two days before the project is due. That scares me to death! Teachers need to understand that group projects are an inconvenience to everyone.
2. Unclean Hair
I have to take a shower or wash my hair everyday. I know that may sound like I’m a neat freak to some people, but my hair get super oily and it is the most disgusting thing to me.
Other people who have greasy hair also gross me out. I may have pulled out my judging handbook a time or two, but it is a pet peeve of mine.
I understand that some people may not have time to wash their hair everyday like me. When I was in high school, I would wake up super early just so I could have enough time to wash my hair. I used to have a roommate who went four straight days without showering. Not only was her hair looking like it was going to crawl off her head and die, but the smell coming off of her made me want to bolt every time she came within 20 feet of the room.
Clean hair makes me feel good, and if I feel good, then I am going to look good, and if I look good, then I am going to be good and have a good day. That is my mindset. I think this also springs from when I was little and would go to my Granny’s house with unclean hair. She would tell me that a rat was building a nest in my hair, and that scared me. What little girls want mice building a nest in their hair and living there? From then on I took a shower everyday, so rats would not live in my hair. Thank you, Granny.
1. Broken Feet Syndrome
Walking is a natural tendency that most people learn at a very young age, but some people forget that they have feet that can help them walk.
Hallways are a place for moving, not stopping. Many students have forgotten this hallway rule. I have run into so many people with “broken feet syndrome.” They get mad at me as if it were my fault that this syndrome has fallen upon them.
I think I will start a charity for “broken feet syndrome,” and all the proceeds will go toward new and improved moving hallways. The No. 1 victims of this syndrome are couples. It randomly strikes couple in the middle of hallways as they kiss and/or hug in front of moving people. I have found one cure for couples, but it is not always 100 percent effective. You could walk in between the couple and separate them. This can either make the syndrome completely disappear for that moment or they get mad and yell at you. Most of the time the second option occurs, but it is always worth a shot.
Donations will be accepted. Call 1-800-PLEASE-MOVE.
— Ashlyn Jackson
Ashlyn Jackson is a young writer with a new blog, People Aren’t Really My Thing.
Take Alfred Kinsey — please. Beginning in the early 1900s, he collected over 5 million gall wasps before he realized that . . . nobody gives a crap about gall wasps. As soon as he turned his attention to human sexuality, he was rolling in grant money and under constant pressure to invite women back to his apartment to see his etchings. He remained married to his wife, Clara Bracken McMillen, even though she threw out his wasp collection to make room for family photo albums.
Thankfully, once science got interested in sex it didn’t let up, and scientists created technological devices such as the Internet, which allows us to use search terms such as “cheerleader AND zucchini” for endless hours of innocent fun.
For those women who are still unhappy because they do not enjoy fulfilling sex lives, new breakthroughs on the horizon promise to make the 21st century the most satisfying ever, even better than the 19th when Sigmund Freud discovered how to talk dirty and get paid for it. Online research conducted earlier today provides answers to the problem of a flagging libido in women over the age of 40, and possible scientific cures:
Problem: You’re distracted during sex.
If you’re like most middle-aged mothers, your mind is in a constant turmoil thinking about the kids’ social schedules, what shade of taupe to paint the den, and whether you put the sponge in the dishwasher. Why? Women’s brains are more active than men’s due to lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which increases the flow of sensory impulses to the genitals. Here is an actual transcript of a married couple in Beaufort, Ga., trying to have sex.
HUSBAND: Unh . . .
WIFE: That’s it . . .
CHILD: Momma, Sparklepuss has a tick . . .
WIFE: Honey, Momma’s kinda busy right now . . .
CHILD: It’s behind her ear — I can’t get it.
HUSBAND: Unh . . .
WIFE: Did you try putting some alcohol on it?
CHILD: I did — I used some of Daddy’s after shave.
HUSBAND: You didn’t take it from my Dale Earnhardt Commemorative Shaving Set, did you?
CHILD: Yes . . .
HUSBAND: Gosh darn it, Tiffany — did you use it all up?
CHILD: No. There was a little bit left, so I put the bottle in the microwave to see if it would blow the plastic squirt cap off.
WIFE: Tiffany, you should never . . .
[SOUND OF EXPLOSION]
Problem: You feel disconnected from your partner.
Many women grow apart from their spouses because their interests develop in different directions; for example, he becomes more interested in scratching his butt in her presence, she becomes less interested in watching him. Viola Guthrie of Portland, Maine, says science can help resolve this sort of difficulty. “Science is always coming up with volatile toxic substances, some of which are found in common consumer products such as anti-freeze,” she says.
“A cocktail made of two ounces of antifreeze and six ounces of Gatorade Thirst Quencher in an 8 ounce ‘grab-and-go’ size bottle is enough to kill a water buffalo,” she notes on visitor’s day at the Maine State Maximum Security Prison for Women, where she is serving a life sentence.
Problem: You have low testosterone.
We tend to think of testosterone as a “male” hormone that makes men do stupid things such as tearing down goal posts and carrying them into contact with overhead electrical wires after their favorite football team wins a wild-card playoff game. Surprisingly, testosterone — blended delicately with estrogen and dark chocolate — helps fuel a woman’s sex drive after menopause. A blood test can determine if you suffer from a testosterone deficiency, and, if so, what the proper dosage would be to give you stronger, more powerful orgasms without going completely nuts and wiping out a biker bar with a broken beer bottle.
— Con Chapman
Con Chapman is a Boston-area writer whose works include The Year of the Gerbil, a history of the 1978 Yankees-Red Sox pennant race, 10 published plays and two novels, Making Partner and CannaCorn (Joshua Tree Publishing). His articles and humor have appeared in magazines and newspapers including The Atlantic Monthly, The Boston Globe and The Christian Science Monitor.
I made a little bit of a mistake last night during my “jogging.” In order to be accurate I think I should come clean and say it’s like a quick-fast shuffling of feet. I don’t know that I have earned “jogging status” because I don’t really have the form.
Onward to the story at hand. The pants I wore were a little loose. I didn’t think much of it because apparently I lack some common sense and understanding of physics.
Once I started “jogging,” there were some issues (I’m pronouncing that word “ish-sues” to sound classier in my head. Do it with me). I spent a good three minutes trying to pull them up and “jog,” but then I thought screw it — bring it on, pants!
Unfortunately, there is a danger element in running with something around your knees, so I had to give up and pull them up eventually. Even if my middle name is danger.
I came up with a new plan. I tucked my pants up into my sports bra. Let’s picture this together, me quickly shuffling my feet, my pants tucked into my sports bra and cuss-breathing. At this point to put your mind at ease, I want to assure you this was on a treadmill at a home and not in public.
I have recognized that I can’t unleash this level of fitness on the unsuspecting city yet. You’re welcome.
Earlier in the day a friend and I (I’m not naming her because I’m not sure she will still claim me as such) were talking about how you can tell the “pro” joggers from the hobby joggers. This is going to sound brattish, but I think I might be a pro. Who else exhibits this level of problem solving except for someone who is climbing the pro jogger ladder? Fitness trainer career? Maybe, but can anyone handle that?
New rule of thumb: If I can tuck my pants up into my sports bra, the pants are too large. Thou shalt set aside thy pants of that size until thou maketh and eateth a whole pan of brownies.
— Mandy Waysman
Mandy Waysman is a mother of two daughters and a husband whom she loves to pieces. She blogs at Oh, Mandelynn. Her work can be found at In The Powder Room as well as Mamalode. She also contributes to Sammiches and Psych Meds.
This happened two years in a row at the Arnold Park picnic. I’m not entirely certain, but I think I was about 10 or 11 at the time. The second year, my little brother Eric won in his division.
What I do remember clearly is that we buried our faces in Hostess cherry fruit pies set up on picnic tables under the burning Midwestern sun. The winner in each age category was rewarded with several Hostess products and a $25 savings bond. I could use that $25 about now.
We had to go to the picnic every year because my dad was on the park board or something really important like that. Plus, there were rides and games and tons of junk food, hence the cherry fruit pies. That picnic was the mainstay of our summer vacation. The fact that my little brother managed to excel at pie eating and win alongside me was just icing on the cake for our family. Eric even got his picture taken by the Jefferson County Journal, hands behind his back, little body bent over with his face planted in the middle of the pie.
Cherry was my sister Carol’s favorite flavor, not mine. I was really an apple pie kind of girl. Luckily I managed to choke down the cherry pie regardless. Likely I would have broken some kind of world record had it been an apple pie-eating contest. Honestly, those days I would have emerged the victor of any dessert-eating contest.
We could have held stock in the Hostess company back then. Between the soft white goodness of Wonder Bread and the creamy surprise in the middle of the Ding Dongs, we certainly ate our share.
My sister loved the cherry fruit pies and the CupCakes. My older brother Steve ate half a loaf of Wonder Bread every day after school, and Eric was really a Ding Dong, Ho Ho kind of kid. Personally, I never met a Hostess product I didn’t like.
I even remember my Grandpa Westmoreland carrying the marshmallow-coconut-covered Sno Balls in his lunch every day. You have to peel the marshmallow cap off the Sno Balls to reveal the chocolate cream-filled cake mound — in case you didn’t know.
The only Hostess product I wasn’t entirely enamored with was the Twinkie. Looking back, it was probably because it didn’t contain any semblance of chocolate. I did, however, like flipping it over to see the underbelly, revealing the three holes where the cream went in. Sometimes I managed to put a Twinkie in my bag lunch in grade school. When I did, I always squished it in the wrapper and squeezed it out like one of those a Go-gurts you feed preschoolers nowadays.
Today, I feel the heat spread up my cheeks if I even hold a box of Ding Dongs in my hand. Who could possibly eat such a thing when organic almond flour is all the craze? Who would dare?
I’m thinking I could easily make this into some kind of personal challenge and fill my basket with every Hostess cake they still make. It’s important to test the boundaries.
— Connie Berry
Connie Berry grew up reading and loving Erma Bombeck. She is former editor of The Catholic Sun newspaper in Syracuse, N.Y., and a new resident of Martha’s Vineyard where she is copy editor for the Vineyard Gazette. She lives on the island with her husband and youngest son. Her two older children read her blog, thejoblessgoddess.blogspot.com, from Syracuse.
(This piece first appeared in the Huffington Post on April 25, 2015. Reposted by permission of author Vincent O’Keefe.)
Entering the fog of Alzheimer’s, I speak slowly into the phone: “Your granddaughter wants to take guitar lessons. Got any tips?”
My 83-year-old mother, who took lessons decades ago, cackles: “She should do what I did — find the best-looking teacher she can!”
“Well, she’s 13, so that’s terrible advice. What kind of grandmother are you?”
We laugh together as she repeats her story about taking lessons to help her quit smoking while raising six children as a stay-at-home mother. She bypasses my daughter’s present situation because people with Alzheimer’s often have stronger command of their “deep” memories than more recent ones. Though in the disease’s early stages, she is starting to drift between time dimensions when I call the assisted-living facility.
My mother has always enjoyed humor, and since I became a stay-at-home father who writes parenting humor, our bond has grown stronger. Now our phone conversations often devolve into a cross-gender, cross-generational sitcom.
Out of curiosity, I recently decided to read a book my mother had always described as her favorite: Erma Bombeck’s If Life is a Bowl of Cherries — What Am I Doing in the Pits? From the opening line, I could see why Mom identified with Bombeck: “I’ve always worried a lot and frankly I’m good at it.” After joking that “I worry about scientists discovering someday that lettuce has been fattening all along,” Bombeck reveals the rub: “But mostly, I worry about surviving… That’s what this book is all about.”
Yes, humor is how my mother survived the worries of her life as well: raising six children, getting divorced after 28 years of marriage, suffering macular degeneration that ended her ability to read her beloved books and now enduring the onset of Alzheimer’s. By the end of the introduction, there was already a lump in my throat.
The book progresses via vignettes, and though some have lost relevance since their publication in 1971, many remain timely. Among the classics, Bombeck provides a Family Survival Manual on “Replacing [a] Toilet Tissue Spindle,” “Closing a Door,” “Turning Off a Light” and “Operating a Clothes Hamper.” Evergreen observations include “There, but for the grace of a babysitter go I,” and “There are some who say giving children responsibility makes them grow. There are others who contend it increases your insurance rates.”
Bombeck’s tone sobers, however, late in the book in a section about her own mother titled “When Did I Become the Mother and the Mother Become the Child?” She explains that the “transition comes slowly… The transferring of responsibility… As your own children grow strong and independent, the mother becomes more childlike.” The child “isn’t ready yet to carry the burden. But the course is set.”
It seemed my mother was speaking to me through the pages, only this time via pathos beside the humor, the pits beside the cherries. Alzheimer’s has certainly begun to take things away. My mother sometimes stops in the middle of our phone conversations and says simply: “I have no words.” She describes the “numbness” overcoming her and explains: “I can see what the disease is doing to me.” On the other end of the line, I have no words for a different reason.
In addition to words, Alzheimer’s has begun to take away the markers of time. My siblings and I now struggle with how to handle forgotten family birthdays. While we can acknowledge her grandchildren’s birthdays for her, our own birthdays are trickier: Out of respect for her dignity, do we remind her of our birthdays when she forgets, assuming she would want to know? Or do we spare her the guilt and pain she feels when reminded of a forgotten birthday? I have opted for the latter, though neither choice seems adequate.
On the other hand, the disease’s quality of timelessness sometimes bestows a blessing. In her lucid moments, Mom has confessed that her short-term memory loss enables her to worry less and laugh more. She speaks of the “gift” of being “suspended in time” with no pressure to remember things. Such moments of freedom — from time, worry, and the inhibitions of memory — are one of the cherries still left in her life.
Bombeck’s classic teaches that even late in life, the cherries are still there; we just have to dig deeper in the bowl. Indeed, such fruits are necessary for survival. A special way to reach them is by reading and sharing a loved one’s favorite book.
As I reread the lighter passages of my mother’s favorite to her over the phone, sometimes she was reminded of how she felt upon first reading them. Other times her changing brain processed them as if for the first time. In all cases, we shared a wonderful, funny, intimate experience: a perfect fruit for both of us.
— Vincent O’Keefe
Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph.D. in American literature. His writing has appeared in The New York Times ”Motherlode” blog, The Huffington Post, The Shriver Report, Brain, Child, The Good Men Project and Role/Reboot, among other venues. He is seeking an agent for a humorous memoir about a decade of at-home parenting. Watch/read/listen to more of his work at www.vincentokeefe.com, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @VincentAOKeefe.