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An evening with a bunch of characters

Humor writer Molly D. Campbell, two-time Erma Bombeck Writing Competition award winner, will launch her new book, Characters in Search of a Novel, at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 6, in the General Motors Rotunda of the Dayton Art Institute.

The event, “Spend an Evening With Some Real Characters,” features Campbell and illustrator Randy Palmer. The evening will include a book signing, readings and a raffle for prizes — including Campbell and Palmer collaborating on an original character story and illustration that will be custom framed for the winner.

Currently a best seller in pop culture on Amazon.com, Characters in Search of a Novel is a collection of short-short stories about everyday people. What started as a Twitter stream of unique names and attributes (Loretta Squirrels beats her husband and makes moonshine) has turned into a book.

“Loretta Squirrels developed a kind of cult following on Twitter,” says Campbell. So when a few fellow writers suggested I write stories about each name, I decided to do it. I am currently working on a second anthology of short stories.”

The Charles Phoenix Retro Holiday Slide Show will follow the book launch at 8 p.m. Phoenix, who collects old Kodachrome slides of unusual families, delivers a hilarious riff on Christmas, families and Americana. Tickets for his performance in the NCR Renaissance Auditorium are $30.

The public is invited to both events.

Barking up the wrong tree

It’s happened several times now. Over the past few months, I’ve gotten calls from four different strangers, all in Rhode Island or Massachusetts.  Every one of them had obviously dialed the wrong number. I know this because they’ve all asked the same question when I answered:  ”Is this Animal Control?” And then someone left this message:  “My neighbor’s dog is out, and this is not the first time I’ve had to deal with this. You need to come do something about it.”

Oh, the irony. Apparently, I’m only a digit off from county animal control somewhere in the Northeast. But in that single digit lies a world of difference.

You see, there is no animal control at my residence. Around here, the animals are in complete control.

That word, “control,” reminds me of something that happened 10 years ago.  I was sitting on my back porch talking on the phone with my husband, who was in a treatment facility in Arizona, and he was telling me he had come to the conclusion that he was in rehab because I was too controlling.

At the same time he hurled the accusation, one of the kids from across the street walked out of my pool house holding a Sprite, asking, “Can I have this?” as the family’s golden lab jumped into the deep end of my pool. I remember thinking, Is he serious? My SUV still has remnants of the time our son spray painted the entire driver’s side, I can’t order anything through the mail because the dachshunds will intercept the UPS guy and eat the package contents, and I’ve unwittingly become the unpaid sitter for the lady across the street. What part of my life is under control?

Ten years later, my husband and I are divorced, and I live in another state.  Everything’s changed, and yet some things will always be the same.

I have a swimming pool and a three-legged dog who swims laps in it every day. My daughter moved back in with me and brought her two Bengal cats, nocturnal creatures who define the word caterwaul between three and six o’clock every morning.  And Laverne and Shirley, the dachshunds? Still massively unmanageable. I have three fences around my yard, and none is very good at containing Laverne, who’s only eight pounds.  The first fence encloses the pool, and she’s thin enough to squeeze through the rails. The second one, a white picket fence around the perimeter of the yard, she easily digs under.  So I spent $500 a few weeks ago to have Invisible Fence re-install the wires that were broken during the pool construction.

Finally, I told myself, I have Laverne under control.

One morning, I opened the door to the garage and heard a bad sound.  It was a beep that alerts me to the fact that the Invisible Fence isn’t working. It also alerts Laverne to the fact that the fence isn’t working. I unplugged the fence to end the incessant high-pitched beeping and called my local Invisible Fence franchise.

Of course, when I plugged the fence back in to show the Invisible Fence guy that it’s broken, it was miraculously working again.

He charged me a $25 trip fee for coming to my house for nothing.

I think I actually saw Laverne grin. Well played, little girl.

As of this very moment, my dogs are contained. But under control? That depends upon whom you ask. I have a neighbor who thinks they bark too much. She even went to the trouble of tearing out a newspaper article for me about using acupuncture to curtail barking.

As if a bunch of needles can change doggie DNA.

Thankfully, I controlled my laughter when she said it. Then I gave her my cell phone number and told her to call me the next time my dogs were bothering her. She’s never dialed my number. But she has complained to the neighborhood association. I got a call last week saying that my dogs were barking, and it was “the third time in six months” that it had happened.

Did you catch that? Three times in six months? That means my dogs were not barking 179 out of the 182 days between January and June of this month.  To my mind, that is curtailed barking.

And that is what I believe this idea of control is all about. It’s all in how we perceive things. For years, I tried to manage my husband’s behavior by changing myself. But control isn’t about changing another person’s (or even a dog’s!) behavior. It’s about changing how we think about a situation.

The only thing in this whole wide world that I can actually control is how I respond to what life throws at me.

So the next time someone from the Northeast calls to ask if they’ve reached animal control, I’m going to give them my neighbor’s number. Just to needle her.

— Sandi Hutcheson

Sandi Hutcheson, who writes under the name Grace Adams, lives on the beach in St. Augustine, Fla., with a pair of defiant dachshunds named Laverne and Shirley, a three-legged Australian Shepherd and a teenage son who is suffering from a serious case of Senioritis. She blogs at “Looks Great Naked.”

Previews of coming contractions

A new humor anthology, My Funny Major Medical, promises to be therapeutic. Laughter, after all, is the best medicine.

Stacey Hatton, who blogs at Nurse Mommy Laughs, says this collection of hilarious medical experiences is “not a gift for your young grandchildren, but perfect for anyone sedated and strapped to a hospital bed.”

Other EBWW contributors to the anthology include Lisa Tognola, Barb Best and Dawn Weber.

The book features humorous essays by columnists, comedians, authors, TV writers “and people with unauthorized access to hospital files,” according to the book’s description. “This inexpensive, pocket-sized book is a time-released ‘get well card’ for the ailing and afflicted, an inside chuckle for medical professionals, and a collection of healing fun for those who aren’t under care at the moment.”

Some sample chapter headings: “My Hysterical-Ectomy” and “Previews of Coming Contractions.”

My Funny Major Medical is available in paperback and for the Kindle from Amazon.com.

Humor writers join farces

Award-winning humor writer Susan Reinhardt (Not Tonight Honey, Wait ‘Til I’m a Size Six and Don’t Sleep with a Bubba) and author DC Stanfa (The Art of Table Dancing: Escapades of an Irreverent Woman) have joined farces to edit a humor anthology titled Fifty Shades of Funny: Hook-ups, Break-ups and Crack-ups.

The two met at the 2006 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, became “fast friends” and sought out a number of other EBWW faculty and participants for the book. Reinhardt, Tracy Beckerman, W. Bruce Cameron and Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant have all served on the EBWW faculty, and several other contributors are past winners of the Erma Bombeck writing competition.

The anthology features stories by both Reinhardt and Stanfa as well as some of the most successful humor writers and bloggers in the country, including Bruce Cameron from The 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter fame, and Writer’s Digest Break-Out Author of the Year, Hollis Gillespie, author of Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch and Confessions of a Recovering Slut.

Also contributing to the project is Nikki Knepper, founder of Moms Who Drink and Swear, whose book by the same name is due out in April 2013. Other contributors are nationally syndicated columnist Tracy Beckerman of the “Lost in Suburbia” blog, who also signed a recent book deal, and Robin O’Bryant, blogger and author of the best-selling, “Ketchup is a Vegetable and Other Lies Moms Tell Themselves.”

The PG 13(ish)-rated anthology showcases a collection of eclectic, ironic, often embarrassing and always hilarious stories of relationship mishaps. The stories seem to fit like your perfect little black dress, but with a twist: This time it’s a little black rubber dress. (Spoiler Alert: Those librarians can be quite naughty once the doors close and the moon rises.)

Tales include exploding hair caked in Final Net and flaming Lee Press-On nails, to one contributor’s ongoing tumultuous relationship with pool boys. Fifty Shades of Funny offers up unconventional and often prickly pairings, like one writer’s harrowing relationship with her mother’s horrendous hairdo, and a consuming obsession-confession from a man who explores life, death, and his love and desire for a popular snack cake, Little Debbie—a  tart in more ways than one. There’s also a comical confession from a cougar-in-training, and one man’s transgression with a “woman in a box” that he bought at a store.

Fifty Shades of Funny is sweet, salty and spicy followed with some just desserts and some unjust desertions. (Second Spoiler Alert: You didn’t really think The Hot Drummer was going to marry her, did you?)

The book is available in both print and e-book editions at Amazon.com.  For more information, visit the website.

Crisis conspiracy in a dim-lit restaurant

So then…the server drops off our drinks and hands us the most impossibly long menus I’ve ever seen. Each menu is one extremely tall sheet made of beautiful parchment paper and printed with an elaborate typestyle, bordering on calligraphy.

I’m only 26, so my eyesight is still good – but even I’m having trouble reading the ornamental curlicues on the script, especially since this swanky Manhattan restaurant is darkly romantic — lit mostly with candles.

My date excuses himself to the men’s room, so I sneak a quick glance over to the large mirror in the bar. I’ve dressed up for our date and I must say, I’m looking pretty damn good. This sentiment seems to be shared by the two guys talking at the bar since they both look in my direction and smile.

I smile back demurely, but quickly return my attention back to the nearly illegible menu — after all, I’m already on a date. I hunch over the menu, leaning closer and closer, trying to read the ornate descriptions of Italian dishes in this dim lighting.

In my peripheral vision, I see the two guys at the bar staring at me. Inside, I’m thinking, Really guys — cool your jets. Didn’t you see I’m with someone?

Now they’re smiling and motioning to me and pointing. Are they asking me over for a drink? Oh, stop, I think. Really – I simply couldn’t! I’m blushing from all the attention.

I shoot a mock scolding look at them and return to my menu – which is on fire.

Yes, on fire.

I’ve leaned so close to the table’s candle, trying to read the damn thing, I have now set it on fire!

The flames are flying – the blaze burning briskly to the bottom of the parchment — ashes fall to the table – everyone whips around to see the spectacle — but I’m afraid to drop it and start a bigger fire — so I just hold it, in shock.

The server swoops over, grabs the bottom of the menu and dunks it into the wine bucket of the table next to me. Instantly a bus boy races over and removes the glasses, silverware, candle and tablecloth. He whips out a fresh white linen tablecloth, resets the table, returns the drinks and hustles away. Meanwhile the server swiftly replaces the wine bucket of the table next to me – then zips back to delicately place a fresh new menu in my hand.

I swear to you, this all takes 60 seconds. They move with such effortless grace and quick thinking; I can only imagine that this sort of thing must happen frequently at this dark-romantic-illegible-menu restaurant.

No sooner does the server sail away then my date rounds the corner and rejoins me at the table. He is none the wiser. All evidence of my near-calamity has been eradicated. I look exactly as he left me – except my heart is hammering wildly.

I shoot a look of relief at my would-be admirers at the bar, who I suppose were really would-be rescuers all along. They smile and give me a thumbs up.

The other diners who were momentarily alarmed all return to their dinners.

When the server gently places the bread basket on the table and winks at me, I realize that the entire restaurant has unanimously decided to join a conspiracy of silence so my date never learns that I almost burnt the place down while he was taking a piss.

But of COURSE I tell him – because how could I not!? Oh, the drama! Lives were almost lost while I tried to distinguish between the tagliatelle and the tortellini!

Darcy Perdu

 Darcy Perdu shares her bodacious blunders, hilarious humiliations and amusing adventures — and asks you to do the same on her blog. Her real-life stories of running a business, wrangling two kids, traveling hither and yon, and navigating relationships will remind you of your own funny experiences — so come share them and read others.  You’ll laugh; you’ll gasp; you’ll chuckle — you might even snort!

The gift of inspiration

Erma Bombeck gave us so many witty, memorable lines.

“Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving.” “In two decades I’ve lost a total of 789 pounds. I should be hanging from a charm bracelet.”

She made us laugh, but she also inspired us.

We’re featuring some of Erma’s most inspirational words on the back of a new EBWW T-shirt: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’”

The shirt is available exclusively through the University of Dayton Bookstore. Within two weeks, we’ll also offer a “You Can Write!” coffee mug.

All proceeds benefit the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop endowment fund that helps support one of the best workshops for writers anywhere.

Give yourself the gift of inspiration.  These items make great gifts for family and friends, too.

Share the Erma spirit!

(If you’d like to make a gift to the workshop, click here and designate Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in the box).

Stalked by zombies

CVS just might stand for Customers are Very Scary.  I offer you proof with this frightening but true story that happened at my local CVS.  (Note:  I have changed the name of the girl in this story, at least I think I changed it.  This was not to protect her privacy, but because I couldn’t remember her name by the time I got home.)

Once upon a time there was a little girl of seven.  She was a happy, friendly child who roamed the aisles of the store alone without a care.  Or so it seemed.

She approached me and asked me my name.  “Bonnie,” I said.  “What’s your name?”

“Melissa.”

“Hi, Melissa.  How are you?”

“I’m fine except a scary thing is following me around the store,” she replied.

I saw a boy walking towards us.  He resembled her so strongly that he had to be her brother.  “Do you mean him?  He does look a little scary.”

“No, he’s my brother. He’s eight,” she replied and pointed to a zombie Halloween decoration, which was in fact scarier looking than her brother. “That. That’s following me.”

I quickly learned a lot about seven-year-old Melissa.  She loves Halloween and is going to be a fairy when she goes trick or treating. Her brother joined us.  She tried to convince him that a spooky creature was following her, but he was uninterested.  Soon they were totally absorbed in the many choices of candy on display.

I then became a ghost to Melissa, who diverted her attention fully to the candy.  At this point I seized the moment and sneaked one of the zombies from where it was perched on a shelf, placed it behind Melissa and her brother and ran down the aisle to hide.  She turned around and jumped and said to her brother, “See, it’s following me.”

They headed farther down the aisle and I was able to use my powers of stealth and move Mr. Zombie right down to the spot where they were about to round a corner.  She gave a little scream and again insisted to her brother that she was being followed.  At that point I walked up and she recounted the entire story to me.

I got into the story with her and asked lots of questions.  She was obviously having a great time.  I was able to add zombies to her path about four times before I had to make my purchase and return to the land of the living.  At the check-out I came across the kids again, this time with their mother.  Melissa was going on and on to the cashier about how zombies had been following her around the store.  Then she looked at me and said, “You wouldn’t have moved them around, would you?”

“Now why would I do that?” I replied with a wink.

Hands down, this was the best time I ever had in CVS.  The Very Scary part does concern me, though.  I was a harmless stranger who really enjoys playing with kids on their level.  I’m glad I’m the one she befriended as it scares me to death to think about this little girl and her brother unsupervised for so long in the store.  I hope this serves as a gentle reminder to people to keep an eye on their kids and grandkids.

It also reminds me of the story of my daughter trying to impress on her kids not to be taken in by a stranger.  You want your kids to be friendly, but they need to keep their distance.  Every time she asked her three-year old if he would go with a stranger who offered him candy, his answer was the same.  “Yes!  I like candy.”  It’s a hard lesson.

Even at my age if you offer me peanut M&Ms, I still will be tempted to go with you.  I probably won’t, but I’ll be tempted.

— Bonnie Anderson

Bonnie Anderson blogs at Life on the Lighter Side: Viewed With a Dash of Humor and Sprinkled With Sarcasm. She lives in Central Florida.

Home

(An excerpt from Bruce B. Smith’s newly published book, For What It’s Worth…Love, Dad: Things I’d always meant to tell you, if only we’d had the time. Posted by permission of the author.)

The house sold a week before Christmas, and our motley crew had piled into a car stuffed with pillows, blankets, a potty chair, and a nasty-tempered hamster. We were driving from California to Connecticut across the southernmost route along I-10 to I-95, a trip which would take us through several states over 10 very cramped days. Richard was not quite 3-years-old, and while initially excited about the trip, he began to lose enthusiasm when he realized this was not our typical afternoon drive. And as each mile passed, he grew even more miserable.

By day three of our journey a few things were becoming painfully obvious.

First rule of travel:

Rodents are not acceptable traveling companions.

That damned hamster was not only bad-tempered; he was a carnivorous little beast with a voracious appetite.

And his food of choice was Jennifer’s fingers.

What had been Jen’s adored pet was now for her a thing of terror, a blood-lusting little were-hamster. I spotted the resemblance to Lon Chaney immediately.

Second rule of travel:

Potty chairs are not designed for mobile use.

As I repeatedly pointed out at the time, they’re not called port-a-potties for a reason. Just try balancing the business end of a toddler on one of those pedestals at 55 miles per hour.

It was Christmas Eve in Terrell, Texas, when we discovered the third rule of travel.

Third rule of travel:

Never end up in Terrell, Texas, on Christmas Eve.

I’m sure the Terrellians love it there. After all, they choose to live there. But for a carload of road-weary out-of-towners…it’s best to keep driving.

We rolled into Terrell about dinner time to discover that the only eating establishment still open on this holiest of holy nights was the local convenience store. For our holiday fare, this shabby little predecessor to a 7-11 store offered up a dubious selection of cheap bologna and plasticized tiles of something called American cheese food. Any reasonable resemblance to actual food had been lost somewhere. These we laced with some soon-to-be outdated mustard on plain white bread and washed the whole thing down with canned sodas.

By then Richard had finally had enough. Tired, cramped and clinging precariously to that roller-coastering potty chair, he began to wail. And in a tear-stained voice, cried, “I…wanna…go…hooooooooome!”

How could we explain to him that (for now at least), home was a 1981 Buick rolling along on Interstate 10? The home we had lived in since before he was born was now someone else’s. Our new home was still several days and thousands of miles away, and still occupied by the soon-to-be previous owners. We would be staying with his mother’s aunt and her obnoxious little dog for the next several weeks until the closing of the sale. Though the dog never actually bit anyone, the whole were-hamster experience had made me overly cautious.

Our answer (dripping with parental guilt and false bravado) was a very pitiful and unsatisfactory “We’re going to our new home!” Because at 3-years-old, Rich, you wouldn’t have understood the answer I’m giving you now…

My son, it doesn’t matter if you live in a castle, a condo or a cardboard box.

Wherever you have family is home.

Your true home is made of the bricks of memories, and its foundation is cemented with the trust that you have in one another. Your true home is roofed by love that protects you when despair rains down. Home keeps you safe when the troubles of the world weigh heavy upon your shoulders.

And while buildings may get old and weaken, and possessions fade and lose their appeal, if you treasure the love of your family, your home will just keep getting stronger. At the end of your journey, it’s the smiles of your family that say “Welcome Home.”

That’s what I’d tell you, if you were to ask me now…

But then I look at the young man you’ve become, and I think, “He already knows.”

— Bruce B. Smith

Bruce B. Smith is a father of three children and lives in Connecticut with his wife of 35 years. He travels extensively, providing disaster recovery services to states and municipalities that have been ravaged by hurricanes and other natural disasters. Bruce is an accomplished photographer and is currently working on his next book.

Reflections of Erma