Archive for April, 2010

Fun Friday: “Where’s the comma?”

A 99-year-old gets her first computer – an iPad.

She’s an avid reader and has glaucoma so this enables her to read again. She also writes poems.

Notice how she’s all business and not flustered when sitting down with the computer for the first time as her daughters stand around in the background. I love how she asks “Where’s the comma?” at the 1:10 mark:

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Dignified concealment is overrated

I like these 19 tips if you’re depressed, which are from a 19th century poet.

I especially like the advice in tip #11: “Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.”

Dignified concealment. That ranks up there with cognitive surplus as one of my new favorite phrases.

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The power of the Breakfast Club story

I posted this on another blog today but thought I’d post it here too because it’s a good example of how a story can have a powerful effect on an entire generation.

Sometimes there’s nothing like a movie in the ability to make a person simultaneously feel understood and be able to feel empathy.

The Breakfast Club is 25 years old this year. Wow. Time flies.

Because Wisconsin schools now have to adopt policies against bullying, and the state must provide free anti-bullying curriculum, I’ve been reflecting on how bullying affected my life as a child.

As a Gen Xer, the best way for me to think about bullying is to talk about the best “anti-bullying curriculum” of my generation…The Breakfast Club.

The movie was released in 1985 when I was a freshman in college. It’s about five high school kids who have to spend a Saturday in detention together.

On the surface, the kids each fit a certain stereotype and seem very different from each other: a criminal, athlete, princess, basket case and brain.

If you’ve never seen this movie, this short lunch scene will give you a glimpse of what the characters are like:

The movie was wildly popular and my friends and I quoted lines from it for months. Even 25 years later, if I say “Mess with the bull and you get the horns” to a college friend, it gets a laugh. I watched the movie on Netflix instant viewing last night and was amazed at how many lines I still knew and how well the movie has aged.

The reason the movie resonated with us so much is because the movie perfectly captured what high school life was like. The movie understood us.

Whenever I talk about the movie with another Gen Xer we inevitably discuss the question, “Which Breakfast Club character were you?”

In my case I was a mix of the Anthony Michael Hall character (the brain/dork) and the Ally Sheedy (the basket case) character.

The movie was therapeutic as well because it also helped us see beneath the tough exterior of bullies.

The person that bullied me in junior high and high school was much like the Emilio Estevez athlete character, right down to being a wrestler.

Of course when Bender, the criminal character, teases the jock character by saying that all you need to be on the wrestling team is a “lobotomy and some tights” I laughed and immediately wished I could have used that line with my bully back in high school.

But near the end of this movie the jock character lets down his guard and talks with shame about the act of bullying that led to his detention and said he engaged in that behavior because of anger toward his father. He hated how his father pushed him in sports.

While watching that scene I felt what I never thought I’d feel toward the boy who bullied me…empathy.

At the end of the movie, the essay the brain character wrote for detention is read out loud. It says that by the end of the detention they realized that each of them was a criminal, princess, athlete, basket case and brain combined.

Or as the athlete Emilio Estevez character said earlier in the movie, “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it.”

Getting to that place of understanding is the key to overcoming bullying. I’m grateful to John Hughes for helping my generation in that regard and am hopeful that the new policies in Wisconsin will help this generation.

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Why you should procrastinate

A career might come out of it:

This quote comes from Jessica Hische, who is a young designer well known for her hand lettering.

As she explains in this short video, she noticed she would work on graphic design while procrastinating from doing art, so she ended up becoming a designer instead of a painter or sculptor.

And she ended up including hand lettering as one of her specialties because she found herself doing hand lettering while procrastinating from a graphic design project.

If you take a look at her work you’ll see that procrastination paid off for her.

I should also emphasize that the key word in that quote is “work.” :-) And the work I often do while procrastinating is blogging. Hmmm.

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Are you being discreet?

It was only recently that I learned discretion is traditionally considered “the mother of all virtues.”

According to Abbot Christopher Jamison in Finding Happiness, “Discretion enables people to find the happy medium, that place of balance between extremes.”

I can see why discretion is highly regarded as a virtue. If you become at least somewhat adept at the virtue of discretion, it probably becomes easier to practice all the other virtues.

Jamison writes about this in the context of food and gluttony, where it’s hard to find a balance between overeating and dieting/fasting.

Of course this applies to all areas of life too. It’s about reaching for your internal dimmer switch rather than your on/off switch.

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This is my final Erma Bombeck post for Erma Bombeck Appreciation Week 2010.

This was written in 1969 but I see nothing has changed in 41 years of parenting.

In addition to never being able to find a pencil when you live in a home with young children, as Erma talks about, I’d like to add the following:

Nail clippers, brushes/combs, scissors, tape measures (usually pressed into service as a stuffed animal leash), cloth napkins (used for picnic blankets for doll parties), and the spray nozzle for the hose.

If the latter seems odd to you, then obviously you do not live with a young child who is obsessed with the hose and starts asking to use it in February.

And, no, Slip N Slides and sprinklers are not of greater interest to her than simply turning on the hose and spraying water about.

I should be grateful, I suppose, that she’s so easily amused, but it means I’m often left searching for the hose nozzle when it’s time to actually do something practical with it, like water flowers or wash the car. I usually  never find it until I almost mow over it.

Let’s not discuss how many hose nozzles I’ve had to purchase over the years…

Anyway, back to Erma:

No Pencil in the House by Erma Bombeck

We have 26 appliances in our home, two cars in the driveway, a few savings bonds put away, and I’m a “standing” at the beauty shop.

We do not own a pencil.

On the surface we would appear to be a family of some comfort. If Onassis knocked on the door and wanted to buy our house for a highway phone booth, I would have to sign the agreement with (a) an eyebrow pencil, (b) yellow crayon, (c) cotton swab saturated in shoe polish, (d) an eyedropper filled with cake coloring, or (e) a sharp fingernail dipped in my own blood.

Pencils are weird little devils. I discovered this quite by accident. One day I took a spanking-new pencil, sharpened it and put it by the telephone. Three days later the same pencil showed up in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator.

I put it back by the phone. It popped up in the medicine chest.

I put it on a strong and attached it to the telephone. It broke its lead. I sharpened it. It broke the string.

It was clear that lousy pencil was not an ordinary inanimate object. It possessed the human qualities of free will and intellect.

As I studied this strange creature, other things became apparent. It enjoyed no sex life whatsoever. Other household items, like coat hangers, straight pins and paper clips, propagated themselves.

Not pencils. They never begot anything but frustration. They came into this world alone, and they dropped behind the stove and out of your life.

They also had an affinity for never being where they were needed.

The other morning I had to write an admittance note for my daughter. “Get mama’s all-occasion cards,” I yelled. (We haven’t had stationery for six years.)

She gave me the box.

“Okay, what’ll it be? Happy Birthday to a Nephew Who Has Been Like a Mother to Me, Sorry You’re Sick or Thinking of You in Your Hour of Sorrow?”

“The birthday, I guess.”

“OK, now get me a pencil.”

“Where?”

“Try the desk, the sewing basket, the stove drawer, Daddy’s workbench in the garage and my black purse.”

“Not there.”

“Very well, try the glove compartment of the car, the clothes hamper, the toy box, the pocket of my blue housecoat, the sink drain, the mailbox, the guitar case and the base of the big oak tree.” (Shouting hysterically) “All right you little devils! Come out, wherever you are! You’ve had your fun. I’ll show you. You’ll go to bed without your din-din!”

And some people worry about the Russians.

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If I Had My Life to Live Over, by Erma Bombeck

Today is the anniversary of Erma Bombeck’s death in 1996 so I thought this column of hers from 1979 would be an appropriate one to post today:

If I Had My Life to Live Over by Erma Bombeck

Someone asked me the other day if I had my life to live over would I change anything.

My answer was no, but then I thought about it and changed my mind.

If I had my life to live over again I would have waxed less and listened more.

Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy and complaining about the shadow over my feet, I’d have cherished every minute of it and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was to be my only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.

I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed.

I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded.

I would have eaten popcorn in the “good” living room and worried less about the dirt when you lit the fireplace.

I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth.

I would have burnt the pink candle that was sculptured like a rose before it melted while being stored.

I would have sat cross-legged on the lawn with my children and never worried about grass stains.

I would have cried and laughed less while watching television … and more while watching real life.

I would have shared more of the responsibility carried by my husband which I took for granted.

I would have eaten less cottage cheese and more ice cream.

I would have gone to bed when I was sick, instead of pretending the Earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren’t there for a day.

I would never have bought ANYTHING just because it was practical/wouldn’t show soil/ guaranteed to last a lifetime.

When my child kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, “Later. Now, go get washed up for dinner.”

There would have been more I love yous … more I’m sorrys … more I’m listenings … but mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute of it … look at it and really see it … try it on … live it … exhaust it … and never give that minute back until there was nothing left of it.

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Erma Bombeck’s “Martha Stewart” column from September 27, 1995

This column comes from the very end of Erma’s career. Erma said that earlier in her career she tended to focus on one-liners in her column because she was afraid that if she told a story no one would stick around for the end. This column is a nice blend of one-liners and story.

Martha Stewart by Erma Bombeck

My mom was visiting recently, and we sat stunned as we watched TV’s Martha Stewart getting ready for Christmas. In 20 minutes she made an elaborate gingerbread house that looked better than the one I am living in. She followed this with baking 300 cookies the size of whoopee cushions, which she decorated and hung from the Christmas tree.

Two grown women watching a homemaking god prepare for a holiday that is three months away is what is so incredible about the Martha Stewart phenomenon.

I find myself unable to turn off her program.

What does this mean? Are there other women out there who are returning to putting creativity back into their homemaking, to join those who never left?

That’s what those of us who had Martha Stewarts for neighbors tried to get away from. You all remember her. She was the woman who hand-painted her garbage cans with sunflowers while we didn’t attempt anything that didn’t have connect-the-dots. She maintained an elaborate garden, knew how to change fuses and made elaborate Halloween costumes for her children while the rest of us cut holes in garbage bags and shoved the kids out the door.

She entertained with theme parties (Low-Fat Fertility Foods Nite). She baked every day and ate nothing.

It’s been 20 years since I’ve thought about a windowsill garden, but the other night as I watched Martha stake her tomatoes with rings cut from her pantyhouse, I said, “I can do that.”

I have started going to flea markets looking for mismatched bargain dishes to bring interest to my table. I think I bought back most of the dishes I got rid of in 1958, but I’m not sure.

My husband can’t figure out what has happened to me. The other night I watched Martha plan a lobster bake by the seashore. He watched with me as she poured half a cup of gin into the boiling water before she dropped in the lobsters.

“Why doesn’t she just drink the gin and forget dinner?” he said.

“Shhh.”

Martha said, “The gin relaxes the lobster. If you were going to be dropped into boiling water and steamed, wouldn’t you want a drink first?”

When she was ready to take it all to the seashore she had little brushes handmade from rosemary and dill, butter with chili and limes in it, and fresh corn.

My husband said dryly, “But will it play in a carport?”

Martha is not married.

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“Are We Rich?” Erma Bombeck’s column from June 3, 1971

I love the reference to gas station glasses. Ah, the good old days:

“Are We Rich?” by Erma Bombeck

The other day out of a clear blue sky Brucie asked, “Are we rich?”

I paused on my knees as I retrieved a dime from the sweeper bag, blew the dust off it and asked, “Not so you can notice. Why?”

“How can you tell?” he asked.

I straightened up and thought a bit. Being rich is a relative sort of thing. Here’s how I can always tell.

“You’re rich when you buy your gas at the same service station all the time so your glasses match.

“You’re rich when you can have eight people to dinner and don’t have to wash forks between the main course and dessert.

“You’re rich when you buy clothes for your kids that are two sizes too big for the one you buy ‘em for and four sizes too big for the one that comes after him.

“You’re rich when you own a boat – without oars.

“You can tell people have money when they record a check and don’t have to subtract it right away.

“People have money when they sit around and joke with the cashier while she’s calling in their charge to see if it’s still open.

“You’re rich when you write notes to the teacher on paper without lines.

“You’re rich when your television set has all the knobs on it.

“You’re rich when you can throw away a pair of pantyhose just because it has a large hole in it.

“You know people are loaded when they don’t have to save rubber bands from the celery and store them on a doorknob.

“You’re rich when you can have a home wedding without HAVEN FUNERAL HOME stamped on the folding chairs.

“You’re rich when the Scouts have a paper drive and you have a stack of The New York Times in your basement.

“You’re rich when your dog is wet and smells good.

“You’re rich when your own hair looks so great everyone thinks it’s a wig.”

Brucie sat quietly for a moment, then said, “I think my friend Ronny is rich.”

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“His mom buys his birthday cake at a bakery, and it isn’t even cracked on top.”

“He’s rich, all right,” I sighed.

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Remembering Erma

Yesterday while gardening I started thinking about one of my great inspirations, Erma Bombeck, who wrote syndicated humor columns in the 1960s-1990s.

I looked at her Wikipedia entry and noticed that the anniversary of her death is this week on Thursday.

She died on April 22, 1996 and even though I never met her, I sobbed when I heard about her passing on that day.

Erma Bombeck humor columns ranked right up there with orchestra class and the golf course as a refuge and source of much needed laughter during my teen years. I continued reading her columns until her death.

I exchanged a few letters with her in my early 20s when I first started writing freelance columns for local newspapers and it was such a thrill for me to receive letters from her.

As much as I might want to say that I learned the most about writing from my favorite high school and college English teachers, in reality it’s Erma Bombeck that had the greatest influence on me as a young writer. I marveled at her ability to tell funny stories about everyday life.

The library used to have an audio cassette of an interview of Erma Bombeck conducted by Writer’s Digest. I checked it out many times and listened to it over and over. I very much enjoyed listening to her talk in detail about her writing process.

I longed to write humor columns like hers. She talked about how her columns were 450 words and how hard it is to write that concisely.  It’s no surprise to me that today most of the copy I write for clients is short copy (500 words or less) and my blog posts are about that same length.

I found an interview with her from 1991 that is similar to that one. In this one she also talks a bit about converting to Catholicism in college, which was noteworthy to me, as in her columns she never touched on religion or politics (she described herself as a “flaming liberal Democrat”) much.

Here’s what she says in the interview about her writing process and how she encouraged her son as a writer:

UDQ: Tell me about your writing process.  How do you write?  Do you set aside a certain time of the day, and if so, why aren’t you writing now?

Bombeck: I am.  You just interrupted me at a page and a half.  Discipline is what I do best.  I can’t imagine any writer saying to you, ‘I just write when I feel like it.’  That’s a luxury, and that’s stupid.  The same for writer’s block.  If you’re a professional writer, you write.  You don’t sit there and wait for sweet inspiration to tap you on the shoulder and say now’s the time.  We meet deadlines.  I write for newspapers, and newspapers don’t wait for anybody.  You write whether you feel like it, you write whether you’ve got an idea, you write whether it’s Pulitzer Prize material.  You just do it, that’s it.  Discipline is what we’re all about.  If you don’t have discipline, you’re not a writer.  This is a job for me.  I come in every morning at 8 a.m. and I don’t leave until 11:30 for lunch.  I take a nap, and then I’m back at the typewriter by 1:30 and I write until 5.  This happens five, six, seven days a week.  I don’t see how I can do any less.

UDQ: A deadline is a great motivator, isn’t it?

Bombeck: It is!  You can’t fool around.  A lot of people who want to be writers sit around and say, ‘You know, when I get the kitchen cleaned up, when I get the casserole made, when I pick up the kids from school, when I get the carpet cleaned, I’m going to sit down and write.  They procrastinate all the time.  Writing has to be a priority.  I have a son who’s a writer in Los Angeles for made-for-television movies.  He had a job in an advertising agency, and I told him, ‘If you’re serious, then you have to put it on the line.’  You have to take a risk.  You have to say, ‘I am a writer,’ and quit the job.  There comes a time when you have to stop talking and start doing.  So he quit the job.  If you’re going to make your living by it, that’s exactly what you have to do.  Then go the beach.

I’m going to make this Erma Bombeck Appreciation Week on this blog. I’ll post a column of hers each day and perhaps a few more tidbits about her (click the Time magazine cover above if you’d like to see the 1984 Time cover story about her). May her memory be eternal.

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