Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What Would Erma Say?

(post copyright 2012, Dawn Weber)

Three days, I was away.

And while I was gone, I can guaran-damn-tee you that no one at my house ate vegetables and no one applied sunscreen. Not a one of them sat up straight.

Utter chaos, when I travel. I really don't know how they survive without my bossiness guidance.

The whole time I attended the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop last week, I worried about my family's lack of vegetable consumption, good posture and general disregard of common health practices. I worried at the conference, on the drive home, up the driveway, through the door. And then I saw them, there in the living-room.

They were breathing, but smelled of Doritos. Also, I questioned the recent hygiene habits of the little one, the boy.

I hugged him anyway. I'm brave like that.

"Hey Levi, I missed you!" I lifted his body - almost as long as mine now - swung it side-to-side like a pendulum and inhaled into his neck.

Nacho Cheese. Perhaps Cool Ranch. Or maybe, both.

Same as it ever was.

"Hi Mom. Happy Birthday," he said, rubbing and smearing his face on my shoulder, the way he has since babyhood.

Well, they were alive. That was something. Doritos aside, I guess my long-suffering husband does a good job with the kids when I travel for work or writing. And by "good job" I mean everyone has a pulse when I get home. Usually.

And these days, he's not the only one in charge while I'm gone - my teenage daughter often runs the show. She feeds herself and her sibling from their four main food groups: pizza, pizza rolls, pizza Bagel Bites and chips. I complained about all this on Facebook last week. Have you met me? Of course I complained. On Facebook. My cousin Mark replied:

"What Would Erma say?"

Hell. I don't know what she'd say. I know she'd say it much better than me. With less cussing. I am no Erma - not even close - and I can tell this when I look at my checkbook balance.

Anyway, as a young mother, before her success, Erma didn't have much chance to leave the house the way I do. Even though she held an English degree from the University of Dayton, society generally frowned upon such endeavors in the 50s and early 60s. A woman? Leave her kids for a career? What's a career?

Erma powered through anyway, starting a column for a small local paper in 1964. They paid her $3 per piece. Her hilarious, realistic essays on life as a suburban housewife grew wildly popular, and over the next few decades her success snowballed to the point of three weekly columns published by hundreds of newspapers across the U.S. and Canada. These became anthologized into a series of best-selling books.

And oh, these books, these BOOKS! There they were on the back of my grandmother's couch and sometimes, the toilet. My mother bought them and then passed them on to Grandma. And her couch. And her toilet. That's where they fell into my grubby eight-year-old hands.

At Wit's End. . . Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession . . . If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? The title alone of The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank had me in a giggling fit, tears rolling down my cheeks, for at least 30 minutes one evening as I hid the book under the blankets, reading before I fell asleep at my grandparent's house while Mom worked the night shift.

Grandma busted me. The undercover laughter gave it away. But once she saw what I read, I received the go-ahead, because my grandmother - a former stay-at-home mother and child of the Great Depression - loved Erma. My mother - a baby boomer, a working woman - loved Erma. And I - a tom-boy not yet in a training bra - I loved me some Erma.

So after merrily plowing through all available Erma paperbacks from the back of the couch and toilet, I began waiting for her newspaper columns to arrive. I parked myself in the front yard on a webbed lawn chair, until I heard Alice the Paper Lady's VW Beetle buzzing down Garfield Road. Jumping up, I waited for the very blonde, very bee-hived Alice at the Youngstown Vindicator box, where she handed me the paper, and I raced back to my chair.

My eyes devoured Erma's column. Then, even though I didn't much understand them, I read Art Buchwald's and Mike Royko's pieces, which sometimes gave me a bewildered chuckle. During my time there in the lawn chair - and with those eight years under my belt - I figured that someday I would write funny columns. After, of course, becoming a vet and a forest ranger.

But even though I eventually earned a photojournalism degree and worked at newspapers, both as a photographer and a reporter, I never became a columnist or vet or forest ranger. A few times, I pitched the idea of a humor column to my editors, but we already had someone on staff who wrote such a piece, and then I left the newspaper business anyway to find a job with a salary above poverty level.

The years flowed by like water, like a river. A husband, a couple babies, a few jobs later.

I blinked.

And then I was 40.

Cliche. I know. But I started thinking it was time to do the things I had always wanted to. At this point, I worked in a state communications department, the contacts at my former newspaper, the Newark Advocate long gone. And Lord, I was tired. Also, I was old.

One day, feeling blue, I Googled Erma Bombeck to read some of her stuff and cheer up. Amongst the links were bios, so I clicked on them and did some math. Approximate age Erma began her first real humor column?


She was 37. I was 40. A little late, but not much difference.

Still, I was tired. Also, I was old.

But I had nothing to lose. I called an old acquaintance, the editor/owner of a tiny paper, the Buckeye Lake Beacon, and asked if I could write a humor column for him. He agreed, worry and uncertainty in his voice. 

Of course he worried. Have you met me?

I began writing the "Lighten Up!" humor column in April, 2009, the month I turned 40. The editor ran it occasionally, when he sold enough ads to make space - not an easy task in this economy. In June, 2011, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) gave me a third-place award for humor in newspapers under 50,000 circulation.

However, with ever-dwindling ad-sales, the paper barely runs my column anymore, and with similar cash problems and ever-shrinking staffs, no other newspapers have expressed interest. The state of modern journalism (and whatever it is that I write) sometimes saddens me.

But I wasn't thinking about any of this the other day when I got home. I was worried about my Doritos-scented family. And before I even unloaded my bags from the Erma conference, my husband grabbed my hand and pulled me to the bedroom.

It was clear I was not going to achieve my birthday dream of taking a solo nap.

"Oh shee-zus honey, I am tired. Also, I'm old," I said.

"Shhh. . ." he said, pulling me over to the wall. There, he showed me this:

For my gift, he had framed my NSNC award. I have been so busy working and blogging and mothering and chauffeuring and possibly peri-menopause-ing-shut-up, I forgot all about the certificate. So I said:

"Wow, thanks! I forgot all about this certificate!"

He laughed. "I squirreled it away. Got the frame at Walmart. I hope it's OK."

"Oh it's awesome. I love it," I said. He had me at 'Walmart.'

He looked intently at my face, then his eyes wandered to my shoulders and chest.

Oh boy. There goes my nap.

"What? What is it?" I asked. "I am tired, also I'm really old now."

He lifted his hand and rubbed my blouse.

"On your shirt. . .Dorito dust. . .from Levi's face," he said.

I looked down.

Nacho Cheese. Perhaps Cool Ranch. Or maybe, both.

Same as it ever was.

Thank you, Erma Bombeck, for your legacy, your laughter and the motivation you gave me in 1977, again in 2009, and ever onward.
       -Your devoted fellow Buckeye (and World's Youngest Erma Fan, 1977),

With Bill Bombeck, Erma's husband, and Betsy Bombeck, her daughter
at the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop. Erma's family is very involved
with the workshop, and Bill and Betsy were so sweet, as I stalked them
to get a photo. 


  1. 1. Well now I totally have to look her up and read her books
    2. I love when people older than me tell me stories of having gotten started at ages older than I am. It makes me not feel so bad anymore about not having taken over the world by age twenty two.
    3. What do you have against Doritos anyway???

  2. What a cute kid, you can't trust men to do anything, we only get married so we have a decent shot at survival past the age of 40.

  3. A frame from WalMart, I gotta' tell you.
    But seriously, you ought to be proud of your achievement. And this post was very humorous with the food groups and doritoes scents.
    Loved it, best regards.

  4. Erma would have loved you, Dawn. You can hang. You keep it real. That was Erma---or how I imagine her to be after snatching up my mom's ERma books when I was a kid too. (DO you think she was aware of her legion of pint sized fans in training bras and Toughskins?). Seeing how gracious and kind her family was with our stalking, well I just know she would have indulged our starstruck selves!

    You can write, Dawn. The avenues to publishing and success might be different today, but as Connie Schultz (my new favorite liberal :) ) said at EBWW, if you have the talent, you can still make it. I think it comes down to who will refuse to quit.

    In the meantime, why you hating on Doritos? They pair so nicely with Michelob Ultra!

    Love ya, bdb!

  5. Know what, “The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank”. How did she know that?

    I always love a good “How I Started Story”

    Hey, you are good or I wouldn’t read you.

    Happy Burphday.

    Oh, and the picture of you in the lumberjack shirt has, “Dude, I just poked a hole in your bicycle tires” written all over it.

    You’re Welcome.

  6. I read all of Erma's books when I was about 12. I laughed till I cried. My mom thought I was nuts. How could I possibly understand the humor, but I did. And I miss her. Erma. And my mom.

    Anyway, I loved this post. You make me miss having a family at home to worry about. Sort of. Okay, not really. I'm just happy the dogs were alive when I got home from my Nana Mission.

  7. So proud of you and your accomplishments! Love it when people fulfill dreams. I always admired my mom for bringing in a little bacon! Nothing wrong with working moms and moms who love Dorito Dust on their shoulders....

  8. Erma, Art, Mike! Are you sure we haven't met before? I love them all. In Chicago, we had delivered each day three papers growing up, the Sun Times, the Tribune and Daily News which was the afternoon paper. I loved and was fascinated by them all. Also I remembered a sports columnist named Jack Griffin, also a story teller.
    Your smile could be picked out of a line up!
    and I hope your nap time was delayed!!

  9. now i need to find her books. i've had people tell me that i remind them of her, but i'm ignorant of what that truly entails.
    who cares if the kids smell like doritos if they're not too dirty and they're smiling. i'm always just happy for a chance to get away.
    you have a good husband. =)

  10. I always loved Erma, even when I was a kid. (And what's wrong with plaid???)

    Doritos and I don't get along. Allergic to MSG. But I like kids, does that count?

  11. of course you will have to change your hair style!

  12. Goll-danG-it, Dawn! You're supposed to make me laugh!! I mean, I did get a chuckle about the Doritos & your daughter taking charge sometimes...but I got REAL tears that your husband thought to frame your award & even went out & bought a frame & actually did it!! Really sweet. I have still not recovered, sentimental fool that be me.

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  14. Awwww. That is so sweet. Happy Birthday!

    And whatever you do ... don't blink. ;)

  15. I have always thought Erma should be elected to sainthood. Even though I am a guy, I loved reading her column back then.
    Love the picture at the top. Did I ever tell you that plaid is my favorite color?

  16. I loved Erma, too, and also read her books!

    This was a wonderful post. Very well done. Congratulations on your award, and I love your hubby for having it framed for you!

  17. Wow, I remember Erma Bombeck, which brings to mind Art Linkletter... but I digress.

    Honestly, at least in my case, I don't think many people have much to write about before they reach age 40. Like, what have you done that wasn't just merely maintenance up to that point in life? My oldest daughter turns 40 next month and I know she hasn't had a moment to sit and collect her thoughts since high school.

    They tell me that Frank Lloyd Wright didn't do his greatest work until he reached his 80's; which means I still have 20 some years to goof around yet.

  18. I love Erma Bombeck and you are so much like her! Keep trying and you'll make it yet! XOXO

  19. Long Live Erma!!! I too read her as a child. I also still check her out at my library. Hey You are my New Erma!! Keep on writing I love your posts...They make my coffee even better :)

  20. Aww, Dawn. I'm so sorry I missed this!

    So what I got out of this post is that you had fun without me? :-)

    Congratulations, welcome back, and sleep well my friend. There are dishes to do and vegetables to steam in the morning...


  21. Dawn, you're pictured with Erma's husband and daughter?!! I'm idolizing you more and more. That's so appropriate, too, that you're sandwiched between them. You're the modern day Erma.

    I haven't read any of her books in their entirety, actually. I just like to station myself in a bookstore to read the titles (e.g., When You Start to Look Like Your Passport Photo, it's Time to Go Home - I might not have that exactly right).

    You are awesome, and so is your family.

  22. Dawn, you're pictured with Erma's husband and daughter?!! I'm idolizing you more and more. That's so appropriate, too, that you're sandwiched between them. You're the modern day Erma.

    I haven't read any of her books in their entirety, actually. I just like to station myself in a bookstore to read the titles (e.g., When You Start to Look Like Your Passport Photo, it's Time to Go Home - I might not have that exactly right).

    You are awesome, and so is your family.

  23. Fantastic post, Dawn. P.S. "They paid her $3 per piece." Totally not fair. That's $3 more per piece than I earn.

  24. I wanted to be a ranger, the range ranger that ranges the ranges in his region. (If you were a girl scout that might have made perfect sense.)
    But Erma? Erma was a classic and I read and laughed over every book she wrote. I think she would have loved your blog, I know I do.

  25. Great story! I love that you stalked them for a photo. The whole family was so nice. Kudos to you husband for getting your award framed. So good meeting you at the conference. I just need to figure out my feed reader so I can keep up with your blog.

  26. NY - I lurrvvee Doritos. Occasionally. But not as a food group. And yep, I have to say one thing I'm proud of is starting up humor writing at my advanced age. Ha!
    Trav - You guys do need help with survival.And laundry. Housework. And... ;)
    Anthony - Thank you, my friend. I had a bunch of fun writing it, even though it wasn't my usual snarkiness.
    MTM- My BDB! I had a blast with you at EBWW. (So many acronyms, so little time.) And I love this sentence of yours "I think it comes down to who will refuse to quit." Awesome!
    Ron - You nailed it. I totally DID probably poke holes in some boy's bicycle tires.
    Dawn - Can't believe how many women are telling me they read Erma's books as your girls! I wasn't alone, squirreling them away.
    Anon (Suz) - I am proud of YOU, too, lady. Springfield girls can get it done. Word.
    RJ - Erma, Art, Mike...see, that's why we be buds!
    Sher - You will like the books, I think. Erma was the first of her kind, told it like it was, kept it real.
    Ami - Secretly, I loved the green plaid shirt. :)
    Kerbi - It was kind of him, and since I poke at him quite a bit, I wanted my readers to see how sweet he really is.
    Linda - Thanks, lady! *Eyes propped*
    Jono - Did I ever tell you guys who like Erma columns are my favorite guys? ;)
    Eva - Wasn't she great? I miss me some Erma, but we still have her books, and her family is awesome.
    Robert - You bring up a very good point. The few times I pitched the column in my 20s, although I wanted to do it and probably could have, I remember not feeling "wise enough" yet. Or maybe "wise-ass" enough.
    Kat - Too sweet. I forgot to point out though that when I started the humor writing, I never wanted to make money, just make people laugh. I need to remember that when I get discouraged.
    Mary - Thanks! I also love reading humor and spitting coffee on my laptop while laughing.
    Robyn - Aw. *blush* Anyway, look who's talkin? Your stuff is hilarious. Hey, why don't you come to the Erma conference in '14? Website:
    Lisa - It's $3 more than I make, too. So fun meeting you there!!
    Diva - I was a Girl Scout. So that does make sense. And thanks, lady, you know I love me some Gene Pool Diva. I mean it!!
    Terri - I'm a good stalker, but they were fabulous about it and Bill and I talked about cameras for a while. They were wonderful. Great meeting you, too!!

  27. What a cool column. I hadn't realized you were such a big deal. I hope you remember people like me when you're an even bigger bigshot writer lady!
    By the way, consider yourself lucky. When Mrs. Penwasser used to leave me alone with the kids, they usually ATE the sunscreen and applied the vegetables.
    Which at least weren't cooked.
    They were little kids, after all.

  28. Awww, I loved me some Erma too! Had the septic tank and bowl of cherries books and read them over and over.

    How sweet of your hubby to frame your certificate. Awesomeness in a man suit.

    Sounds like you had a great time at the workshop. Even if the family lived on Dorritos while you were gone. They are their own food group? Who knew???

  29. Penwasser - I'm a big deal? This is news to me. And at least sunscreen and vegetables were SOMEWHERE around when the long-suffering Mrs. Penwasser left the house.
    Jump - Septic tank and Bowl of Cherries are two of my favorites of hers. Now that I'm older (and married) I also love "A Marriage Made in Heaven: Or Too Tired for an Affair." Another classic. :)

  30. This totally explains it!! My Mother is from Chillicothe and I remember seeing the "if life is a bowl of cherries" book when I was younger. She loved her as well. So not only do you have the coolest name ever, but you have great taste in authors. Clearly you learned from the best. Huge congrats on your success. That is really truly awesome! Congrats! Also...congrats on getting the hubby to rub your "blouse". Or I suppose I should be congratulating him. :)

  31. Vixen - How cool that you have some Buckeye in your blood, too! (Though your people were smart enough to get the H. out of these winters ;) ;) ) And yes, you should congratulate the husband, because I never did get my 'nap'. Nudge nudge, wink wink.

  32. I am so happy I followed you here from a shout out at muftopmommy.

    You are wonderful.

    I was at EBWW, wish I would have met you.

    So many wonderful people I missed.

    You are hilarious.


  33. Hi, hon. I just read your response. Yes, I'd love to plan on that in '14. I'll check out the website. Thank you.


  34. Dawn:
    I almost forgot to tell you! I nominated you for a Kreativ Blogger award. Lisa Trognola from EBWW nominated me and I nominated you! Here are the rules: Head over to my blog and copy the Kreativ Blogger Award logo and place it one of your upcoming posts. Thank the person who nominated you and link back to their blog.
    List 7 things about you that people might find interesting.
    Nominate 7 other bloggers for their own Kreativ Blogger Award.
    Leave a comment on the blogs you nominate to let them know

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