Thursday, April 17, 2014

Long Live Erma

Image from, one of my favorite sites.

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 sixties. 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 2 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 assing it up in front of Phil Donahue. I could recount the incidents leading up to my 3-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.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

This Blessed Mess

Just a glimpse of our blessedly messy, wonderful life.

I figured out how to measure whether I'm "blessed" (define that as you will). I'm not sure why it's been so important to figure this out, but this morning, it hit me like the metric ton of dirty laundry waiting for me in the chute. You know how I know?

Because if I didn't change a single thing about my life at this exact moment, in this exact space, and the ground opened and swallowed up my entire life in one big, chocolate-covered gulp, it would have been a great life.

There's freedom in realizing that none of it is ever going to be perfect. For me, it's never even going to look perfect. My floors will be sticky most days. I may never reach that magical number on the scale that pleases both society and my doctor. My kids will exit our home with bushy hair, snow boots in July, and forever mixing stripes and plaid with wild abandon - and that will be after 20 minutes of cajoling, yelling, and physically prodding them out the door.

Despite my failed attempts, my dog loves you, and she is going to jump on you. One day, we will repaint our trim, but probably not tomorrow. And though I apologize to my horticulturally-inclined neighbors, the weeds in my yard will likely continue their tireless march to the border between our properties for at least another few years.

I'm planning to continue showing up to all these kid activities with my hair still wet from the shower, slightly confused about what's happening this week and how much money I owe and for what. I'm never getting that dent pulled out of the side of the van - the van that apparently signifies my lack of cool to the rest of the world if the internet is to be trusted on these maters. Who are we kidding? I was never cool in the first place. Thank god. I'd hate to undergo the pressure of trying to try maintain some kind of cred in addition to just, I don't know, getting dressed in daytime clothes and leaving the house now and then.

There's a lot we don't have compared to the Joneses (not the actual Joneses I know - I love those guys). But there's so much more that we do have that it's busting out of my garage on a daily basis. Actually, some of those things are hand-me-downs from the aforementioned Jonseses, but I digress.

This house is loud. It's giggly, musical, yell-y and filled with colorful language. It's warm. It's dirty, to be perfectly honest.

If you're a real friend, you'll move the Lego farm off the chair and rinse out a coffee cup and have a seat. Lucky for me, I have those kinds of friends in spades.

Like I said, it's a blessing. A blessed mess. I'm pretty sure many of us have our own version of a blessed mess going on. I gravitate toward those people who embrace it, in fact. This is part of why my weekend at the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop was so inspiring, fulfilling, and refreshing. A blessed mess of women (and a few men) who own it, write it down, and serve as cheerleaders for the whole Erma family.

Tomorrow, I'll try to capture in words what a wonderful opportunity this bi-annual gathering of kindred souls really is all about.

I'll also fill you in on how Kurt made me look like a complete slacker while I was away and how my children will never again be satisfied with my lackluster attempts to provide entertainment to them on a daily basis. Until last weekend, sending them out into the yard with a stick was plenty engaging, but no more...