My Weekend with Erma

A few weeks ago, I went to my first Bruce Springsteen concert.  For almost four hours, the Boss delivered his hits plus some and never slowed down once. Impressive for anyone, let alone a 65 year old, right? There’s a reason he’s nicknamed The Boss. As a matter of fact, some would call him the biggest rock star in the world.

I jumped right in to “the pit”, dragging my daughter with me as we shoved our way to the front of the stage. My word for the year is “adventure”, and I wasn’t about to waste a minute.

Erma Bombeck

Cut to a couple of days after the Springsteen concert, when I left for the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, held every two years in Dayton Ohio.  Put on in honor of Erma, my writing idol since childhood, attendees and faculty are humor and human interest writers from around the country; these are the people who
leave me tongue tied and intimidated by their sheer level of talent. People that have spent their lives dedicated to stringing together words to make you nod in recognition, to make you chuckle, to make you full-on belly laugh.

In other words? These people are my rock stars.

Yes, I fangirl over humor writers.  Get positively stupid around them. If there was a Tiger Beat for humor writers, I’d totally be the first subscriber.

Because I’m in such awe of them, before I arrived at the hotel I worried about what I would do if I ran into someone I admired in the elevator or the lobby.  An awkward encounter with a well-known humorist years ago taught me that I cannot be trusted to open my mouth in front of anyone of that caliber; I can’t remember what I said to Dave Barry that made him look at me funny; probably something along the lines of, “Gwaaahhfuuusneeblesnrrrkrk! Muhhh!”

Yep, as soon as I opened my mouth I apparently suffered some sort of mini-stroke. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

And the trauma has stayed with me for life, my friends.

Yet when I got there, the atmosphere at this workshop put me immediately at ease.  The famous humor writers in attendance didn’t set themselves apart like cossetted celebrities. As a matter of fact, they weren’t even the least bit intimidating. Hanging out, talking, and drinking wine with us mere mortals, without fail each and every person I encountered was warm and down to earth. I was comfortable, able to be myself. No weird looks.

I was home.

So when, after waiting a lifetime, or at least the long two years after you discovered the conference’s existence, you finally get there, what do you do?  You jump right in, and you don’t waste a minute.

Case in point: When you are at the coffee bar in the morning, and standing next to you is a mega famous author who just happens to have written the book currently on your nightstand, you strike up a conversation.  And then you walk with her because she happens to be running your first session. And she doesn’t even call for security.

Lisa Packer and Gina Barreca EBWW2014

Me and Gina Barreca. At EBWW, stalking is totally acceptable.

And when the winner of the Thurber Prize gives you an opportunity to read some of your work out loud, with a pounding heart you do it.  Then you float for the rest of the day on his positive feedback.

And when a well-known comedian and writer asks if she can sit with you at breakfast, you say yes. You try to play it cool but in your head you’re like a twelve year old girl who just got invited backstage to meet One Direction and all you can think is, “Holy crap I can’t believe this is really happening and please God don’t let there be anything in my teeth!”

And when a famous columnist calls you over, introduces herself, and wants to know what’s in the bag of stuff you just bought at CVS, you introduce yourself right back and let her paw through your bag. And are grateful you didn’t just buy hemorrhoid cream or anything that involves the words “Summer Breeze”.

So I spent three days in the company of the most fabulous, talented, and supportive group of people I have ever met. People who get it. People who get me. We laughed until our sides hurt, we teared up, we learned from the best.  Not once did I have to tell someone I write humor and get that awkward silence in return. (Why is it that no one ever knows what to say? It’s humor, people. Not competitive macramé or the Occult.)   I want to thank each and every one of the organizers, faculty, and attendees, including the Bombeck family, for the got-your back, supportive, inspiring atmosphere.

And by the time I left?  I had 350 new rock stars.

‘Cause Springsteen’s got nothing on the Bombeckians.

All the Pioneers Really Needed Was a Good Cabernet

View of the lake

 

There was a book written a few years back called The Last Child in the Woods. I haven’t read it yet, but I love the title. It speaks to me. And anyway, I’m happy to say the last children  in the woods just may be mine. Okay, that came out wrong. Anyone else picturing my kids as Hansel and Gretel? Just me? Okay.  As I’ve mentioned, our kids are outdoorsy types already. They play outside way more than inside. And every summer, for two weeks, we’re “unplugged”, so to speak.

Our vacation destination each summer is a cabin deep in the north woods of Michigan. Kind of like camping, except with electricity and indoor plumbing. If you know me, you know I don’t “rough it”, so this is as close to camping as I get. Which is to say not at all.  Anyhow, the place has no TV reception,  and no internet connection.  I’ll let that sink in for a minute. No. Internet. Connection.  It’s never bothered me much before. There’s something calming and transformative about disconnecting from everything going on in the world.

I know, I know, two weeks doesn’t sound like much. But for us, it’s a step in the right direction. It lets our kids know that they can live without the electronics, that the world isn’t going to come to an end if they haven’t seen the latest Instagram of someone making a duckface or Youtube video of a kitten sneezing.

Ever gone on a vacation to a place where you’re disconnected to the outside world? It’s strange to re-emerge after a couple of weeks  and hear about things that happened two weeks ago that are already old news to everyone else, but are new to you. “You didn’t hear about that? Have you been living under a rock?” Well, as a matter of fact I have, in a way. Not under a rock, but in a log cabin in the woods, Thoreau-style except with killer iced coffee and some fabulous wine and cheese that we picked up from Zingermans on the way. Please. I’m not a heathen.

And I usually don’t have a problem being away from the internet. But wait… I’m doing this blogging thing now. Don’t I need to be connected? What if I miss something? And there’s a royal baby on the way! A babieeeee! I’m gonna miss the 24/7 news coverage of the birthin’ ! And Lindsay Lohan is probably gonna be  released from rehab early, upon which she is going to… drumroll please…  attend her own birthday party.  Oh, the shenanigans  that will ensue!  If anyone needs to pre-emptively get the lawyers on retainer, it’s her.  Amanda Bynes has been sort of quiet as of late, so she’s primed for another round of Bonkers Pong  any minute!  And I’ll probably  miss all of it. Well, at least I got to have access to the interwebs for the birth of the Spawn of Kim and Douchebucket Kanye. So that was fun.  Okay not really.

Speaking of which, I kind of sort of think the name “North” is cool. And by that I mean it could be worse. But with “West” as a last name? Goes from cool to cruel before you can say “Imma let you finish”.  What the hell were they thinking? Oh, right, I forgot who we’re talking about. Idiots. 

Anyway, the cabin. My great-grandfather built it in the 1920s.  I’ve been going there all my life. My mom has been going there her whole life. My grandfather grew up going there. You get the picture.

It is my rest. It is my sanctuary. It is my place to unplug and disconnect from the world, including celebrity train-wrecks.  And since I fully expect my kids to unplug as well, I’m going to have to set a good example. Probably.  Which means no sneaking peeks at celebrity gossip websites on our rare trips into town. Goodbye Gawker. Ta-ta TMZ. What? This People magazine peeking out from under the cushion? Oh, I bought that back in Ohio before we even crossed the border, so it totally doesn’t count. Shut up.

The rule is the kids aren’t allowed to bring any of their electronic devices. That means no DS, no iPod touch. The adults will have non-functioning  cell phones (no reception in that part of the woods.) The adults will also have laptops, but until we make the twenty minute drive to town (the closest internet connection) the laptops will mostly  function as expensive paperweights.

So yes, my kids will be completely disconnected from computers, TV, and electronics for two weeks. But they’ve been going to the cabin every summer  since they were born. They’re used to it. And they’re not complaining.

They’ll play in the woods, swim in the lake, kayak, fish, catch frogs, and look for wildlife. At night we’ll toast marshmallows, read, and play board games or cards.  Secure on the screened sleeping porch, we’ll fall asleep to the sounds of the forest. (“Did you hear that noise last night? What was that?” Is an oft repeated line in the a.m.). In the morning, we’ll wake up to the chill in the air, the call of the loons on the lake, to the smell of bacon cooking and coffee brewing.  After  the fog on the lake lifts, we’ll spend the rest of the day on the water or lounging lakeside. And our biggest decision will be what kind of sandwich to make for lunch.

I won’t even bring my Nook. I considered it, after all, the point of its purchase was so I wouldn’t have to lug so many books on vacation that they needed their own suitcase. But… there are games on the Nook. Game that my kids are going to want to play if it is available. And my kids all have advanced degrees in pestering.  So, guess what? The Nook will stay at home. I’ll be lugging a stack of good old-fashioned books with me like always. No charger needed.

Full disclosure, though: As I mentioned, I will have my laptop with me, since that’s where I write.  Posting will present a challenge, obviously.  I may have to coordinate posting with going into town for supplies, kind of like the pioneers did.  Er, like they would have done if they had blogs. What? I can compare myself to pioneers or to Laura Engalls Wilder or Thoreau if I want. Just because my clothes aren’t all scratchy doesn’t mean I don’t suffer hardship, too. Once when I was up there I ran out of French Vanilla coffee creamer. That was a rough day, my friends.

Quick favor, though. Can someone just, I don’t know,  send up smoke signals or something  if Lindsay Lohan or Amanda Bynes has a surprise  kid and names it something like  “Scrambled Eggs Haiku”? Because I’m pretty sure even Thoreau would have come out of the woods for that. Happy summer!

 

 

 

What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

What I look like when I write. What, you don't?

What I look like when I write. What, you don’t?

 

This post is for Finish the Sentence Friday…

I blog because… I am done taking “no” for an answer.

I am at the point in my life when I am done hearing, “You can’t, you’ll fail, it’s too late, you’re too old to start something new”.

I’ll back up. As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write humor. Let’s not look too deeply into the need for this kind of validation. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. (No, wait, don’t! I wasn’t finished.) And then I discovered Erma Bombeck, and read every book she ever published. Her writing was a revelation to me. I realized for the first time that you could be a funny AND a mom, and somehow I knew I wanted to be a part of that tribe.

I faithfully read Dave Barry and every other humor columnist that came along in our local paper. And I started to write. I figured yearbook and the school newspaper were a great jumping off point to a fantastic career in journalism, which would of course lead to my own syndicated humor column! It’s just that simple, folks, right? (Um, no. But my former naiveté makes me giggle.)

So I chose a college based on its great journalism school. And then came the college “advisor” who “advised” me not to pursue entrance into the journalism program. “Don’t even try. You won’t make it,” were his exact words. Way to spit on someone’s dreams, Professor.  (And by the way your vest and goatee were stupid and made you look like that Burl Ives-voiced snowman in Rudolph. Except in my memory you have devil horns.)  Yes, I walked away from writing. Because of one guy’s opinion, I went belly-up faster than a church festival goldfish.

Fast forward through all of the post-college corporate years. I was now at home with my kids, and because I wanted to contribute financially, I took a part time job as a freelance writer. And suddenly remembered how much I loved to write humor. I sucked at “housekeeping”, was flying by the seat of my Target yoga pants as a parent, and was a failure in the PTO. What better way to document my complete ineptitude?

I started to consider my options. It turns out there was a whole community of funny people, being funny online!  But I met another freelance writer at a party and when told her I was thinking of starting a blog, she looked horrified and said, “Oh no! Don’t do THAT!”As if I had casually mentioned that I was thinking smuggling a vial of live Ebola virus back from Africa in my carry-on. While drunk and on roller skates.

Seriously? Another “no”?

Negative Nelly aside, I started to figure out a way to blog that I was comfortable with, that wouldn’t be hurtful or embarrassing to my kids and husband, and would also protect their privacy. And the day my son went off to kindergarten I published my first post.

So I blog because… I finally know what I want to be when I grow up.

I blog because… I love to write.

I blog because… even awkward situations make for good stories. And I’m the Queen of Awkward. Ask me about the time I got trapped in the balcony at a funeral. Yeah. It happened.

I blog because… I love to make people laugh. (With me, not at me. Thought I’d clarify  that).

I blog because… I love reaching other people with my writing. The best, the absolute best, is when I get a comment that someone thinks my writing is funny.

I blog because…along the way I have found a community of people who are funny, supportive, and incredibly talented. Most are parents as well, so they can identify with what I’m going through. And it’s okay that none of us are perfect.

The negative people are still out there. But I’m not listening any more. I’m having way too much fun.

The Smell of the Barn

The barn of my dreams.

The barn of my dreams.

 

 

Today, I’m jumping into Finish the Sentence Friday, so I’m writing from a prompt.

Today’s prompt: If I could live anywhere, I’d live…

On a farm. Specifically the farm my grandparents owned when I was growing up.

I’ve looked. It’s not for sale. Maybe some day it will be. And maybe the day it comes up for sale I will just happen to be driving by, with one of those giant cardboard checks from the lottery in my backseat. Hey, you never know.

My grandparents didn’t live there. My parents, grandparents, and aunt kept their horses there, and my aunt and uncle lived in the old white farmhouse shaded by enormous trees. My grandfather had some cattle, and there were some chickens, but it wasn’t a livestock farm.

We spent summer evenings and weekends at that farm. My parents mucked stalls, repaired fences, and groomed horses while we waded in the shallow creek, overturning rocks to look for the crawdads that would dart just out of our reach. We climbed trees, tried to catch the chickens, and played in the barns. Many evenings we would drive back home after dark, a summer breeze blowing in the window of the station wagon, falling asleep to the sound of the Cincinnati Reds game on the radio.

While we helped out in the barn and groomed the horses sometimes, the horses were really for the adults. They had enough injuries to know how risky riding and caring for horses could be. My parents also knew full well how expensive the care of horses could get, so although we grew up around the horses, we were never encouraged to pursue riding as a hobby. We rode on occasion, usually at the encouragement of my daredevil grandfather, but for the most part the equestrian life was the grown-ups’ domain. Except for my cousin.

I can remember driving up the long road to the farm and seeing my wild child cousin, no more than 9 at the time, riding bareback through the farm fields with her hair flying out behind her. She was as comfortable on a horse as she was on two feet, often leaping onto the horse’s back straight over the rump like you see in the movies. We were close then, my cousin, my sister, and I.

But life marches on, and adult decisions were made that didn’t involve us kids. Sometime in my early teens, my grandparents sold the farm and all of the horses and de-camped to a condo in Florida. My parents gave up the riding life, finding golf to be a less dangerous pursuit. I did learn to ride passably, but it was at summer camp, not at the hands of my parents. My aunt, uncle, and cousin moved out of state so my uncle could take a high level corporate job, and we rarely saw them any more. At some point after that, my cousin began to founder. Despite my aunt and uncle’s efforts to help her, she is now lost to us.

My memories of that time in my life are like the Super 8 movies we took back then. Fuzzy and out of focus in spots, and soundless, but bright. Everything is bathed in sunlight.  And we were all together.

To this day, the smell of a horse barn is like a tonic to me. Leather tack, hay, saddle soap, grain, and the antiseptic smell of Absorbine Junior takes me back to my childhood and a simpler time. My kids don’t understand it yet, and they think it’s funny when I drive by a stable and roll down the windows to inhale the scent. But they’ve all been on horseback, and like the rest of my family they are comfortable there.

My  hope is that someday I can buy a small farm. (I’d love for it to be the family compound, with a few houses on the property so my entire extended can all live there, but somehow I don’t think my parents share my utopian vision  of togetherness. Hmph. Fine.)   We may live there, we may not. But with a couple of horses, my kids and I can all work side by side until sunset, and drive home dusty and smelling like the barn. And I’ll have the Reds game on the radio.

Open Door Policy

Dear Parents in My Neighborhood,

My kitchen door opens, and five children tumble through.  This time, only one is mine – the others are children from the neighborhood. They are here on a mission, as apparently word has gotten out that we have popsicles in the freezer. Some days, it’s like watching  a clown car; when the door opens I am never sure how many are going to come through.

Yes, as you know, my house is “that house”. The house in the neighborhood where all of the children seem to congregate. It wasn’t always this way, and I wasn’t always “that mom”.

Years ago, I was a cranky transplant from the East coast, having relocated from Washington DC back to the Ohio of my birth.  The years away were enough to bury the kid in me that grew up playing on farms and the woods and creeks behind my childhood home.  Urban Washington DC wasn’t a place to tell the kids to go outside to play; limited yard space meant a  trip to the park, a walk to the market, or a scheduled trip to the zoo were more likely items on the daily agenda.

We moved back to Ohio when Washington DC just got too scary (see 9-11, anthrax, and sniper shootings).  One baby was followed by another, then another. At first, I was completely thrown by small neighborhood children, having sniffed out potential playmates like pigs on truffles, showing up at random and asking if my kids could play. During those years, I was very likely to have a sleeping infant at any given time of day – a small child leaning on the doorbell and sending the dog into a barking frenzy was most definitely not welcomed. (See “cranky”, above.)

And playdates were to be scheduled, for goodness sake! None of this showing up at random and expecting fun! Firmly of the opinion that spontaneous joy needed to be planned well in advance, I fought the tide.

But the kids grew up, as kids do. Naps became a thing of the past. They became old enough to play outside with friends, and one by one the houses of the “empty nesters” surrounding us welcomed new families, all with young children.

And gradually, I adjusted to a new rhythm of life without even realizing it was happening.

Like finches to a feeder, they came. It seems our wide, flat yard and driveway are centrally located, and perfect for soccer, tee-ball, bike riding, or super-soaker fights. Now when telling someone where we live, I am often asked, “Oh! Is yours the house with all of the kids in the yard?”

Today our driveway is full of chalk drawings; there is blue paint on our front sidewalk plus some on the rhododendron. The immaculate landscaping left by the former owners has seen better days,  although we put forth a decent effort. My day lilies are frequently half-day lilies, blossoms lying on the ground after being beheaded in some sort of imaginary dragon fight.  Some day the yard  will be beautiful again, but my house will be too quiet. This I know.

We have a tree on our lot perfect for climbing; one day I looked out and the tree was so full of children it looked like that scene in The Sound of Music, minus the matching outfits made from curtains.

I am distributor of snacks, drinks, and the occasional band-aid or ice ghost. Some days, we have so many children in and out that before I can put my own kids in the car to run an errand, I have to do a quick sweep of the house to make sure there are no stray neighborhood children about to be left inside by mistake.

We have rules, of course. No swinging sticks. (That never ends well.)   Bring your cups back when you’re done. Clean up your messes, and don’t leave trash in the yard. My tomato garden is off limits. And try not to let the dog out unless you want to chase him down.

I have become practiced at getting a meal on the table despite swirling chaos; many nights, I ask for a show of hands to tell me who is staying for dinner. As long as they call home to confirm, or run home to ask, they are welcome.  We can always throw a few more places down.  Please know that your kids always eat well, have nice manners, and help clear the table.

Often one of you thanks me for having your kids over, whether for a meal, snack, or just to play in the driveway. Well, this is my chance to thank you.

Thank you for sharing your children. Thank you for raising such well-mannered young people. Thank you for allowing your children “out to play”, so my children can experience the kind of neighborhood camaraderie I had growing up. Thank you for not being the snack police and freaking out if your kid has a graham cracker before dinner. Thank you for returning the bike/shoes/soccer ball my kid left in your driveway.

When my kids collapse into bed at night, happy and exhausted from their adventures, I feel especially blessed to live among you.  Thank you for the joy my kids experience every day, the kind of bike- riding, firefly- catching, tree- climbing, wind in your hair childhood that I was lucky enough to have.  I treasure these years, and wouldn’t change a thing.