I met Kim the first day of the conference. I didn’t want to like her. She was everything I am not. Kim is very tall and blond. I am very not tall and blond. She’s also beautiful. On a good day I’m cute, in a Joanie from “Happy Days” sort of way.
Before I could stop myself from being endeared by her self-depreciating wit, I found out she was also the global winner of the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition in the human interest category. And, wait for it. …She had never really written anything in her life.
I, on the other hand, have been writing for 30 years. I make my living at it. I’ve had a fairly good journalism career and have won awards for my writing.
Obviously, I could not possibly like Kim.
Still, I was impressed with her subtle lack of boundaries and her humorous sense of discernment, along with our mutual attachment to the bar at happy hour. I suspected we were both slightly introverted, even though we worked our way through the room, chatting with strangers and laughing in mostly all the right places. By the time dinner was served, I was tipsy. So, I followed my new friend to her table (which, it turned out, was the VIP winners’ table) and pulled up an extra chair. I didn’t realize my deviation from proper etiquette until a photographer came around with a large camera and asked, “Is this the winners’ table?” My answer was to head back to the bar for yet another glass of Chardonnay to contemplate calling a cab back to my hotel.
Instead, I swallowed my now pungent-tasting pride and returned to the table where Kim charitably explained that I was her “friend” and we wanted to sit together. At this point we had known each other all of two hours. She could easily have shunned me to my proper place. Instead, she was willing to appear equally ignorant of protocol and perhaps go down in history as the woman who thought it was OK to bring any old drunk to her assigned VIP table.
Now, beautiful, smart, talented, tall Kim was also…gracious. Great.
On the way back to the hotel, I read her award-winning piece. Of course I wanted to not like it. I wanted to find typos and smirk at her lack of creativity and shun her for her obvious absence of experience. Instead, I cried at the honest beauty of her words and fought back pangs of spiteful envy. I found myself chanting something I once heard Madeleine Albright say, “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t support other women.” And surely, I did not want to go to Hell.
Meanwhile, I continued my string of gaffes – such as getting my skirt caught on a rose bush on my very glamorous entrance into the Marriott, taking a selfie video while trying to get a photo of Phil Donahue after interrupting his dinner and locking myself out of my hotel room while wearing Hello Kitty jammies topped off with an abundant head of Phyllis Diller morning hair.
Kim, of course, continued to be recognized for her newfound talent and her beauty. “That’s her,” people whispered as we walked down the hall. “I think she’s a model, too,” one lady added. Despite my most fervent wish that she would turn obnoxiously arrogant, Kim remained charmingly humble. And, worse yet, I was starting to like her.
Finally, on day three, she showed up with a long plastic strip on the back of her new, stylish capris that stated repeatedly in 18-point bold typeface: “Size 8, Tummy Control.” For a moment, I considered leaving it there, but something in me said, “This is my friend, and I must protect her from all those women who might delight in Blondie needing tummy control.”
And so, I pulled the strip off and we giggled like eighth grade girls in sex ed class. Later, Kim ate a day-old burrito and vomited on her way to the airport and got stuck in Detroit (still vomiting) when her flight was cancelled. She was beginning to seem normal and almost lovable by this point, so I felt nothing but sympathy and concern for my new friend.
It has only occurred to me since returning home that Kim taught me quite a few things in the three days at the conference. Mostly, she taught me grace.
Oh, and always, always check your clothes for tags before leaving the hotel room…
Holly Kelsey-Henry is actually a really nice person who lives in Wisconsin. She is the owner of DownWrite Creative and makes her living as a writer — some days more profitably than others. She is a former award-winning journalist and still writes for newspapers and magazines. She and Kim have become good friends and now send each other emails on almost a daily basis.
I love to shop. And shopping as in “real life,” not online. I like to touch the fabrics, try the clothes on, and search for matching pieces when I find something I love. In real-life shopping, you’re surrounded by beautiful displays, larger-than-life glossy photographs, and endless options, often providing more effective relief from stress than therapy or, surprisingly, a good bottle of wine.
Which is not to say that all shopping brings forth the desired result of emotional feng shui.
Jeans shopping, for example, is a landmine of anti-zen. Standing in the dressing room, staring at 10 pairs of jeans and not one that fits, is hardly the prescription for inner peace. One pair squishes the belly up and over the top like a life-size apple muffin from Starbucks. Another pair sits so low on the torso, you can see China down one’s disturbingly visible butt crack. And yet another is so long on my wiener dog legs that by the time I have them hemmed, the “boot cut” is more accurately a “straight cut.”
Skinny jeans make me look like a Ball Park Frank, perilously close to bursting out of its casing at any moment. Relaxed Fit is another way of saying “saggy in the hips and butt.” (If that was the look I wanted, I’d just go naked.) Low-Rise is out (see above), but High-Waisted are reminiscent of Lee jeans in the ’70s. They weren’t flattering then, and I was 30 years younger. And Hubs wonders why I live in yoga pants.
Then, of course, there’s the this-must-be-what Hell-feels-like swimsuit shopping.
An afternoon of Speedo shopping can tank a woman’s self-confidence faster than a morning weigh-in after girls’ night out over nachos and margaritas. There’s just something so wrong about staring at your pale, desperately-needs-bronzer body, after a winter of hibernating on the couch with unlimited Netflix streaming and a never-ending supply of frosted brownies (okay, maybe that’s just me), stuffed into an overpriced, tiny piece of spandex, while debating whether or not to wear it out in public. Oh hell, no.
We spend most of the year selecting and wearing clothes that, hopefully, detract the eye from our more visibly aging areas. But then when the sun comes out, we jump into a short toothpaste tube that broadcasts our every missed workout, bad food choice, “okay, just one more” glass of wine, and our losing battle with gravity like a neon arrow over our heads flashing “Let Herself Go and Doesn’t Care.”
Recently I’ve discovered a new shopping minefield. Bras.
Like many women, for years I’ve purchased bras based on the size and styles I’ve always worn. If it was pretty, with underwire and little lace, and reasonably priced, I was good to go. But over the past couple of years, my old standbys just weren’t “doing it” any more. It was painfully obvious that the basic lift bra was no longer enough to get those deflated party balloons back up closer to my clavicle than to my navel. This was going to take some professional intervention.
Off to Nordstrom, my go-to place for uncharted shopping territories. The lingerie department was beautiful, with a veritable sea of undergarment options that dizzied the mind. I found a vivacious 12-year-old saleswoman, who promptly ushered me into a plush, softly lit dressing room, and whipped out a measuring tape.
“Okay!” she chirped, flashing a bright, perfect smile, “let’s undress and I’ll measure you!”
“That’s not necessary,” I mumbled, “I know what size I wear.”
“Oh, no,” she shook her head and frowned, “Most women have been wearing the wrong size for years. That’s why their boobs look like that.”
Well, in the first place, you pre-pubescent Twinkie, that isn’t the reason their boobs “look like that.” It’s called gravity, and someday, if there is a God, even you will meet up with it. Until then, I’m well aware that mine resemble wind socks on a still day, but I’m counting on you to work around it.
Twinkie Girl quickly measured my chest (over the boobs), then smiled and said, “If you’ll lift up your breasts, I’ll measure your rib cage.” Lift up my breasts?? At this point, I didn’t know whether to laugh or just smack her with one of them. But since we were halfway through the process, I just sighed and hefted up one Beanie Baby in each hand, so she could do her duty. Turns out I’d been wearing the wrong size forever.
She gave me a bright, $10,000-in-orthodontia smile and said, “I’m going out to get you some styles to try on. Stay here. I’ll be right back!” (Where was I going?? I was half-naked, the bra I was wearing earlier was apparently completely unacceptable and had been summarily tossed, and braless tends to make me look like a cover model for National Geographic, the Safari Edition.)
Twinkie Girl returned a short time later with a basket full of bras in my new size. She watched as I tried on the first two, then instructed, “They work better if you lean forward and just let your boobs sort of fall into them.” That helped, but they still weren’t getting “up there” like I wanted.
As I stood in front of Twinkie Girl, she studied my breasts for a minute with a small frown, and then said, “Here’s what you do.” She leaned towards me, stuck her hand down my bra and lifted my boob up further into the cup. OMG.
I don’t even let Hubs do that.
I stood in mortified silence, until she whispered, “Now look.”
I turned and looked in the mirror. And there they were. My perky, back-up-there-where-God-originally-put-them boobs, happily chatting with their long-lost neighbors, my clavicles. I was dazzled.
Twinkie Girl gave me a moment to stare at my bouncy new chest and then brought it home with, “And they’re on sale for $85. Oh, and you should wash them after every two wearings, so you’ll need at least two. One in nude and one in black. Shall I wrap them up?”
$85?? On sale???
I looked again. She had me, and she knew it. Wrap up the black one. I’m wearing the nude. And call the bank. My car payment is going to be late.
— Vikki Claflin
Oregon writer Vikki Claflin writes the popular humor blog, Laugh Lines. Two recent pieces have been published in Life Well Blogged: Parenting Gag Reels — Hilarious Writes and Wrongs: Take 26.
This writing life has presented some pesky problems for a horse. Daily keyboard tasks have knocked the stuffing out of my leisure pursuits. All those memorable hours once filled with gin rummy tournaments have been replaced with search engine optimized tweeting drills. And here’s another sticky wicket: writer’s block.
Madam cautioned me about this the day I signed on to write a book with her. Since she tends to exaggerate, I just smiled warmly and ignored her cautioning words. Yet, my earlier disregard did not stop her from dropping in this morning to offer a few tips on writer’s block.
“Noah, all it takes is a simple thank-you note to your mother-in-law, or a term paper on downy woodpeckers to set it off,” she declared. “One minute you whip out a pen and prepare to dazzle your readers, and the next minute you hit the editorial cellar.”
That seemed a little harsh.
According to Madam, symptoms vary though always include avoidance tactics. The condition can come on abruptly, as an overpowering urge to get a tattoo, or silently, leaving its victim unable to write anything more than today’s date.
“So what does this writer’s block look like? I queried. “Does it cause hives, or grow like mildew on a budding novelist’s forehead?” I chuckled.
Madam ignored my mold analogy and pressed on.
“Writer’s block has caused me to feel overcome with a sudden yearning to schedule a colonoscopy,” she offered. “One time I found myself inexplicably enrolled in an auto mechanics class, just to avoid writing a press release. And there was the day last fall when I retired to the bedroom to make clothes for the cat,” she sighed. “Each of these occasions lead to a nap followed by supper and an itch to take a quick spin through the house with the Hoover upright.”
Good grief, this was starting to sound bad. It also sounded familiar. Just yesterday Gabe mentioned that I looked plump. I insisted that my stable blanket hugged me like a new pair of Spanx Shapewear because Madam shrank it in the dryer. At least I thought she shrank it in the dryer. On the other hand, I have been squandering countless hours in the kitchen tasting my Pillsbury Bake Off entries. And I can’t even count the number of Louis L’Amour gunslinger novels I’ve finished.
So I asked Madam, “Hypothetically what would you suggest for a handsome and talented author who might possibly be suffering from a tiny spate of writer’s block?”
“Well,” she offered with a faint smile. “That writer could begin to get his groove back by writing an apology note to his landlord for breaking open the horse treats and making a wholesale mess of the tack room.”
“Hmm… it’s certainly is worth a try,” I replied. “I’ll bet Gabe will find this very helpful.”
“Indeed,” said Madam.
Noah Vail and Mary Farr have collaborated on a book, Never Say Neigh: An Adventure in Fun, Funny and the Power of You. Noah, author, philosopher, humorist, gin rummy ace and all-around “good news sort of guy” blogs here. Never Say Neigh won an honorable mention in the 2013 Paris Book Festival.
It’s been a week since I returned from the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Most of the attendees have already posted on their blogs about their experiences there, but I have not.
I am late. Very, very late.
It’s not because I didn’t have an unbelieveable time. I did.
Or that I didn’t connect with old friends and meet loads of great new ones. I did that, too.
It also has nothing to do with the fact that I went on spring break with my family the whole week following the conference, or that we had our kitchen and baths demolished while we were out of town and I had to set up a makeshift kitchen in the living room when we got home.
The issue is, I needed some time to let it all sink in. The sessions. The friendships. The moments of pure joy, feelings of connectedness, and inspiration. The sheer “Erma-ness” of the whole thing. Like a great brisket, my thoughts needed time to bake, absorb the flavor, and sit for a bit before being served.
I know, pretty poetic for a humor writer, huh?
This was my sixth Erma conference. I first went in 2004, so this was actually my 10-year anniversary. For my 10-year wedding anniversary, my husband took us to Italy. For my 10-year Erma anniversary, naturally, I went to Dayton.
Although I had transitioned from attendee to faculty member several years ago, I realized there is still not all that much that separates me from the other writers. We all have insecurities about the work we birth into the world. We all want to be paid for our writing. We all want to be acknowledged on some level for our contributions and achievements. And we all want to be successful.
But how we define success is different for each person. Some people measure it by the dozens of newspapers or websites that carry their column or blog. Some measure it by the one newspaper or website that carries their column or blog. We often quantify it by hits, likes, retweets and visits.
As writers, success is often marked more by response than output. Wouldn’t it be great if more of us writers could feel successful simply for writing?
Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and creating something meaningful, relatable and well-crafted is almost more difficult than childbirth. In the case of my book, Lost in Suburbia, the gestation period was actually the same. It took me nine months to write the book, and in the end, I finally had to give it over to God. More than anything else this weekend, I realized that for each of us, writing is the way we communicate our feelings and describe our world. It is not the way we work. It is the way we breathe.
Thank goodness for conferences like the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop for reminding us that it’s not about the swag, the sponsors, the number of unique visitors we have to our sites, and the people who want to compensate us for our work with “exposure.” It’s about realizing that what we do has value, whether that value is felt by one person or a million, by friends or family or complete strangers. It’s about connecting with like-minded people. And it’s about recognizing how very lucky we are to have discovered this gift and love we have for writing
I want to thank Teri Rizvi, Bob Daley, and the rest of the University of Dayton crew for putting this conference together every two years; to Debe Dockins and the Washington Centerville LIbrary for graciously hosting the awards competition; to Patricia Wynn Brown for generously donating her time to be the Master of Ceremonies throughout the weekend. Also, my pit crew, Michele Wojciechowski, Anne Parris, Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Suzette Martinez Standring, Joy Steele, Rose Valenta, Wanda Argersinger, Sharon Dillon, Michelle Momper and so many others who share my passion and support my goals.
To Betsy, Matt and Andy Bombeck for continuing to be a part of this celebration year after year. To their dad Bill, in absentia.
… and to Erma Bombeck, for showing us that We. Can. Write.
— Tracy Beckerman
Tracy Beckerman, who served on the faculty at the 2014 EBWW, writes the syndicated humor column and blog, “Lost in Suburbia,” which is carried by more than 400 newspapers in 25 states and on 250 websites to approximately 10 million readers. She’s also the author of Lost in Suburbia: A Momoir and Rebel Without a Minivan: Observations on Life in the ‘Burbs. In 2014, she was the global humor winner in the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition sponsored by the Washington-Centerville Public Library in Centerville, Ohio.
A renowned feminist theorist, a septuagenarian New York Times bestseller, and the first editor of Ms. Magazine walk into a bar. No. Scratch that.
Three accomplished, poised women sit at an unassuming folding table in an auditorium at a university in Dayton, Ohio. A wide-eyed audience filled with mostly middle and up-and-coming middle aged women stare back expectantly. A few aren’t aware of the collective body of knowledge, depth and experience emanating from that table, and they are about to be blown away.
As the moderator steps up to the podium, I reluctantly wrap up my small talk with the fascinating woman to my right, who is both a landlord and an extremely sharp marketing executive with a warm wit, and turn my attention to the panel. I try to engage the part of my brain that is capable of following what I’m sure is going to be a serious, academic discussion. This means switching from my ongoing worry about whether Kurt is lost somewhere in Cincinnati with our assumedly naked, hungry children. He’s probably out of gas and stranded in the Bad Part of town. Probably the one that appears on “The First 48″ most frequently. Oh, God.
And then best-selling author, tenured English/feminist theory professor and recent Friar’s Club inductee Gina Barreca bares her upper thigh so we can all get a good look at her tights, which are printed with pinstripe stockings, and I’m whisked away for the next hour and a half. The van has GPS and enough Goldfish Cracker crumbs to sustain the kids for a few weeks, and Kurt has been making me look bad by taking them for ice cream and the park all the time while I’ve been gone, anyway. I am allowed to be here and soak it in fully. And I do.
As the pace picks up, it’s a wild ride. Gina frames longstanding feminist debate with a confidence that precludes a need for her to throw anybody under the bus. It’s more about empowerment than it is about wasting time on those people who haven’t yet decided that women are simply human. And that giggle we do when we’re listening to a man tell us a long story about getting his car detailed? She’s on to us. We’re not listening, and we’re not having a good time. We have to stop speaking in the interrogatory. This is not a question? I actually do have a name? It makes no sense to introduce yourself with a question mark at the end? My brain is singing. Oh, to be free for a few days of the endless quest for preparing the next meal, for matching up socks, for ferrying small children.
And it just gets better. Ilene Beckerman is telling us about how she accidentally published a book, which was turned into a Broadway show, directed by none other than Nora Ephron. And she did it in her 60s. She’s wearing a turquoise, sequined head scarf over her long, straight, delightfully lavender hair. Her nose ring glints in the stage lights and I can see her heavy eye makeup eight rows back. She’s a beautiful gypsy, and she’s hilarious. She assures us that she doesn’t deserve to share the stage with these other women, but it’s all lies. Her story is incredible and real, and I know I could sit with her for hours and soak it all in and still leave wanting more.
I’m not sure what to expect from Suzanne Braun Levine. She looks so polished up there, exactly what I’d expect from someone with a list of accomplishments like hers. I’m intimidated, really. She has sat, elbow-to-elbow with Gloria-freaking-Steinem and casually changed the way women are perceived by society. Everyone in this room is in her debt. I’m actually a little nervous. And then she’s telling us about how it all went down, about how Ms. started as a one-shot gag, an offshoot of New York Magazine. The editor thought it might be amusing to have a woman at the helm for this one-time publication. But women were hungry for that platform, and they raided every newsstand in town, and as is the case so often, money talks. Just like that, a new era was hatched and our voices grew more powerful overnight.
Suzanne keeps talking and I can hear stereotypes I didn’t know I had shattering in my head. She’s real. She’s strong and she’s hilarious, warm and self-deprecating. She explains that her kids don’t even quite realize that she’s an accomplished woman. She leaves newspaper clippings and awards lying around conspicuously sometimes, just in case they happen upon them and are shocked to realize this woman is their mother. I love it; I get it. I’m not going to be editing a groundbreaking magazine any time soon, but I get that dichotomy. No matter what I do, to my boys, I’m always going to be their mother first. It’s a powerful realization.
It’s one of my many, many powerful realizations that I hit on during this all-too-short session at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Many of them come from women in the audience. A woman asks about how to help shepherd the younger generation through the current “geek culture.” Why aren’t there stronger comic book heroines? Where’s the Black Widow movie? Another woman asks how to protect our loved ones when we want to write about them. The unanimous response: just do it, and as Gina points out, your relatives are never going to read what you write, anyway.
Oh, and about that moderator. Because this workshop seems hellbent on giving me value for every second of the full two-and-a-half day experience, the moderator could run her own workshop if she wanted. Pat Wynn Brown is incredible. She deftly manages a complicated, rapid-fire discussion, adds her own stories (I’d pay good money for a book about her experiences as one of the first female mail carriers in Columbus) and juggles questions from the audience as well as any TV host I’ve seen. It must have taken hours to pull together the questions here (and she did this twice, two completely different discussions with the same women). But that’s not enough for Pat. She’s also our beloved emcee for the whole event. We get to enjoy her introductions and anecdotes at every meal, as if dessert with every meal wasn’t enough of a gift. I might be a fangirl for Pat at this point.
And then something happens that I will never forget. Something that will keep me lining up for this conference as soon as the registration opens until they stop having it or until I am no longer here to enjoy it. A young woman approaches the mic. She’s shaking, and as the room grows quiet, she says she is so glad she’d taken the leap to come here, because the experience has helped her to find her sense of humor again. She’d been hilarious once before, she explains, and then she adds: “I’m from Newtown, Connecticut.”
Now. Like everyone in the world with access to media, I’ve thought long and hard about Newtown since that awful day in December 2012. But I didn’t quite understand the weight of what it must mean to be from a place that is now so marked that a mere mention of the town’s name can bring a room to tears, instantly. Her bravery and courage fill up that room with compassion and love, and I realize that this workshop is about so much more than networking and developing a so-called platform.
It’s about the why: Why we’re compelled to write down the stories of our lives. Why humor is vital to every human, everywhere. Why we’re all in this together.
I could regale you with fantastic stories involving insomnia, wine and a**ing it up in front of Phil Donahue. I could recount the incidents leading up to my three-day investigation into where the hell the hotel housekeeping staff was holding hostage my Erma Bombeck wine glass. I could easily write this much about any of the workshops I attended. I could tell you about the instant bonding that so often occurs among Bombeckians, and how I’m already counting down the days until 2016, but I’m still savoring so much of it, just for me.
I will say this. Wherever writers gather in community, something special will happen. There’s an energy we share, and it’s capable of changing this world. I am beyond lucky to know so many people who aren’t afraid to drag the bodies out into the light and examine them fully. I’m even luckier that so many of them will point out the stray upper-lip hair and the mismatched socks.
Long live the spirit of Erma Bombeck.
— Sarah Hunt
Sarah Hunt wears many hats: freelance writer and editor, humorist, mom of two, wife of one, optimistic procrastinator, list maker, taxivan driver, killer of plants and insufficient housekeeper. She is a cheerleader for her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, and has finally embraced her Midwestern sensibility and comfortable shoes.
It’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.”
It’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.
(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.”
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.
(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 Levine, Ms. 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.