Let’s get one thing clear, right off the bat: I’m not a scientist, or a doctor, or a politician, or anything even resembling a smarty pants. I’m a writer, artist, and performer who tries to help people push past fear to embrace their creativity. In the grand scheme of the universe, I’m just a dreamer with a pen and a paintbrush who wants us all to get along.
So keep that in mind as you continue reading – and if you can’t, if you’re already preparing to debate anything related to the current pandemic, it’s OK to stop reading right now and go find something else to do.
My mother loves to tell the story about how, when I was a newborn, she left the house and went shopping, and when she got to the store realized she’d forgotten to take me with her.
It was no big deal, she’s always assured me. As soon as she remembered, she went home and got me. I was fine. No harm done. She was sure I hadn’t even realized she’d been gone. I was an infant, so she’s probably right. But I always wondered how a mother could do that. I mean, doesn’t a mother’s world revolve around her children? How could she forget me?
Then I had a kid.
For what it’s worth, I’ve never gone shopping and forgotten my daughter at home. Well, not that I remember anyway. There was that one time when I was at the mall, and I was looking at some shoes that were on sale, and when I turned around realized my daughter had disappeared. In a panic, I started calling her name and searching among the racks. Finally, I ran out into the mall and spotted her a few stores away, calming walking along with a young couple, chatting nonstop and regaling them with tales of her imaginary friends.
She was three years old.
My failures as a mother weren’t limited to losing my child while bargain hunting. One time, I was dressing her while getting myself ready for work. We were late, and I was trying to do ten things at the same time. I didn’t realize that her little jacket had gotten caught on her shirt, and that the zipper was now lying against her bare skin. As I rushed around trying to get myself dressed and get her dressed and then get us both out the door, I quickly zipped the jacket, taking a strip of her soft belly flesh with it.
I awoke slowly, a tiny ray of light peeking through the curtains as I tied to open my eyes. The dog was breathing in my face, his wet nose crammed into my right eyeball. My eyes hurt, but I don’t think it was from dog slobber. They felt itchy and irritated, and when I finally hauled myself out of bed and looked in the mirror, I could see they were also red. I panicked.
Uh oh. Do I have pink eye again?
I’d recently gotten back from the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop in Dayton, OH, where I spent four days socializing and eating dessert before dinner. The sessions were instructional, the keynote speakers inspirational, and the message one of encouragement and embracing one’s mission. We all left feeling empowered.
And for some, nauseated.
What do you get when 350 women and 9 men check into a hotel for a weekend-long humor writing conference featuring top notch guest speakers, dessert with every meal, and more fun than a barrel of monkeys?
You get the flu, that’s what you get.
Prior to the conference, most of us had joined the Erma Attendees Facebook group, taking time to learn each other’s names, discuss packing lists, and admit fears about attending the premiere workshop for humorists.
After the conference? The talk was all about who caught what from whom and when.
Patient Zero clearly brought the dreaded virus with them to Ohio, because a few attendees were struck down the first night and didn’t recover until it was time to head home. A few others got sick over the weekend; as I left the hotel on Sunday morning, I saw several people who looked like they might not make it out the door.
And then as people returned home to their corners of the country, like a giant domino chain of nausea and fever, one by one others fell. Someone even started a Facebook poll to track who was sick, since so many people were posting “Me, too” in the comment sections of other people’s posts.
Me? I got lucky. My stomach was upset, but that could have been from all the cheesecake; I don’t usually have dessert at every meal. I checked my temperature every hour, just in case I was burning up and didn’t know it. Nope, no flu here. But my eyes were killing me, and I was afraid that in addition to my business cards maybe I’d also passed out pink eye. If the next discussion thread was about who caused the painful temporary blindness, all fingers would point to me.
I just got back from the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, OH. I attended in 2004, 2006, and 2008, and then last summer, while at St. David’s Writing Conference, I met three women and talked them into going with me this year.
I’ll write more about the actual conference later, when I’ve recovered from four days of cheesecake, teaching, and social interaction. It was, as expected, fabulous. But I wanted to share one thing with you now.
If you read my blog, I often lament about having great ideas that I don’t follow through with, or about book ideas that I don’t write and then see someone else has written them. I get stuck, and overthink, and talk a lot about things I want to do but don’t, and it’s been going on for while. Too long. Like, if this whining was in a plastic container of leftovers in my fridge it would have not only gone moldy long ago, it would have sprouted a civilization that developed a cure for cancer.
I’m even on deadline, right now, right this minute, for a book I’m contracted to write that is just completely stalled, and I’m spinning my wheels creatively.
One of the reasons I was back at the Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop was to get my creative self back into alignment. Some time ago, I went from a very successful stint as a music blogger, with regular paying freelancing gigs, and lots of paid blogging and writing, to walking the dogs and binging on Netflix and bemoaning the fact that I offer nothing to the world. To be fair, things had changed in the music and publishing industry, and magazines and newspapers I’d been writing for were sold, which meant those paid writing gigs were gone. And I got jaded and lost my passion, for life and writing. (And there was also that stalker, too, who caused me no small amount of aggravation and was the last straw in the camel’s backpack that led to my taking a break from regular, serious writing for a while.)
The last few years have been a process of stopping, starting, reevaluating, doing well, crawling under a rock, taking stock, and emerging with wings that aren’t quite unfurled. Other parts of my creative life have emerged – improv and, most recently, stand up. But the writing is now in a different climate, from a different perspective on life, and amidst a great deal of disorganization in my creative life. I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk wondering if I have any words left and, if I do, where I’d find them under this pile of folders and books and notes and dog toys.
So the message of this podcast has really stuck in my head and heart, particularly the part where Elizabeth Gilbert says:
“I kind of believe the world is being constantly circled as though by Gulf Stream forces, ideas and creativity, that want to be made manifest. And they’re looking for portals to come through in people. And if you don’t do it, they’ll go find someone else. And so you have to convince it that you’re serious and you have to show it respect and you have to talk to it and let it know you’re there.”
It haunted me the entire drive. And then the first workshop session I went to at Erma was with Alan Zweibel, who among many, many, many things, was an original writer for Saturday Night Live. He told us that the secret to writing is to write, and that we should focus on the process, not the product. There there are words out there, he said, and they just need to be plucked out and put down.
There it is again.
I’d never thought about my ideas or creative inspiration being something outside of myself. I always felt like creative inspiration was supposed to be inside of me, and if I wasn’t feeling it, it was because I didn’t have any. But what if ideas and creativity are constantly swirling around me, like bits of the universe that I can reach out and catch, if only I open my hand? Well, that’s another story. Because then, what I’m lacking isn’t the creativity. What I’m lacking is the work. And I have total control over that.
So the takeaway, from the podcast and the sessions and the whole conference? It’s all there for the asking. All of it. ALL OF IT. The only thing that’s required of me is the work. The muse will join me in this dance of creativity once she sees me out on the ballroom floor and believes I’m going to stay there for the entire song.
Food for thought I wanted to share with you.
There’s so much to say about the conference, which is still digesting in my soul, and I’ll write about that in a separate post. But right now? I’ve got some work to do.
So there’s been quite a bit of news here at the Funny Farm the last few weeks. I’ve been on the hunt for a new car, since the Jeep dogmobile was in need of repairs and it was looking like it might be a case of throwing good money after bad. To make a long story short, after much shopping around, crunching numbers and test driving cars, we traded in the dogmobile for a 2015 Honda Fit.
There was much weeping as I handed over the keys to the Jeep. Saying goodbye was also a little like saying goodbye to a period of five years in my life I’d just rather not revisit. But there are some good things; there was probably a lot of Scout’s dog hair in there. But I just kept reminding myself that I was trading 13 mpg for 35 mpg, and gaining the ability to get on the road and take a trip without having to rent a car.
I opted for the Fit because 1) it’s a Honda and it’ll last me 200,000 miles; 2) the price and terms fit our monthly budget, including the savings I’ll get in gas and insurance; and 3) it’s super fun to drive.
I like it. Darling husband likes it. And the dogs, who have only had a short ride in it, seem to like it. Bailey can bark out the back window more easily. Bandit seems to like his new ride in the front seat.
What I didn’t plan on was what would happen when I had to haul stuff around. Today was the first challenge.
I stopped into Wegmans and saw these amazing peony plants, along with blueberry bushes for just $5 each.We planted two blueberry bushes last year, very small plants, but with the winter cold, and probably mostly because Bandit peed on them, they didn’t make it. These blueberry plants at Wegmans were big and lovely, and would surely survive even my inability to grow anything. Since you need to have at least two varieties of blueberries to get fruit, and since they were only $5, I grabbed three varieties and one peony, just for fun.
Feeling quite pleased with myself, I headed to the car only to realize … crap, I don’t know how I’m going to get these plants into that tiny car.
This post originally appeared in 2013 on my Heavenly Creatures blog at Patheos.com. I generally write about animals and faith and God on that blog, but when offered the opportunity to read and write about this book for a Patheos roundtable, I jumped at the chance. Turns out it wasn’t only a good read; it profoundly changed the way I view myself, making it a must to include in my “5o thoughts on turning 50”.
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I’m an introvert. When I said it to friends a few times over the last couple of weeks, I’ve gotten responses like, “You? You’re so talkative” or “I remember you as so outgoing” but almost always, “You’re not an introvert.”
Really? How would you know?
You probably base your idea of who I am on what you see on the outside, without knowing what’s going on inside of me most of the time. Sure, I can put together a party and play the happy hostess. But inside, I’m usually freaking out, because I have a difficult time talking to lots of people at once. You see me as talkative because I try to go out into social situations only when I’ve built up enough social energy to carry on a conversation; you don’t see me in my alone times, just me and the dogs, walking in the cemetery and recharging my batteries.
I can talk at length, and even in front of a crowd, about a topic dear to my heart. But it’s impossible for me to speak when I don’t believe what I’m saying. Want to talk about human trafficking or positive dog training methods? I’m all about it. Which girl should get a rose on “The Bachelor”? I’m out – or rather, I end up musing about why women would value themselves so little that they’d compete for some guy on a game show and throw their emotions around so trivially; usually everyone else wants to talk about which girl is the biggest bitch.
I’m always asking questions to strangers, like “why do you believe that” and “how did that make you feel”, surrounding myself with gads of acquaintances but few real friends, avoiding conflict and loud noises (and people who wear copious amounts of perfume or cologne), always aware that there is a social line that, once crossed, can throw me into panic or drain me to the point of physical exhaustion.
I get it. I sound cuckoo. In fact, for years (and years) I thought there was something wrong with me. Let’s face it. In our culture, we revere the outgoing, bold, confident risk takers, those who set goals and go after them with wild abandon. Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking and wondering but not always doing are viewed as weak.
That’s why I was so relieved to read Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” The book could have been subtitled “Joanne: An Owner’s Manual.”
For the first time, someone has taken the side of the introvert and shown how important they (we) are in an American culture, dispelling the myth that all introverts are recluses who avoid human interaction or that extrovertism is the ideal. And she uses neuroscience and research to back it all up.
When you’re a writer, reader feedback is always welcome, whether you’re telling me that you enjoyed something I’ve written or you think I’m an idiot.
In the July issue of Refreshed Magazine, I wrote about hearing a critter in our attic and darling husband’s brave battle with a bat. The bat lost. One reader sent this comment about the killing of the winged rodent:
“I think the article Bats in the Belfry by Joanne Brknow [sic] was disgusting! There was no reason to kill the bat! Bats are good as they eat tremendous amounts of insects. How could you print that? And under the heading That’s Life!”
Yesterday, we found a bat in our basement. In honor of the reader, we set it free.
Well, if I’m being honest – and you know that honesty always makes for the best humor pieces – we trapped the bat between the front door and the screen door while we debated whether to whack it or let it go.
It must have been listening, because as darling husband inched the door open, the bat escaped. But as it flew away – and then circled our house, and the neighbor’s house, and the street for about 10 minutes – I cried, “Be free, Mr. Bat! Be free!”
After eating bugs in the backyard, I fully expect Mr. Bat to return some night this week for another midnight round of Critters In The Attic. We’ll be waiting … with the bat whacker …
For most of my life, I’ve been consumed with finding my purpose in life. I believe that I’m here for a reason – that God created me for something and that I’m not here by accident. And yet I’ve never really felt like I could put my finger on what that reason and purpose was.
Then a few years ago, I stumbled on a quote by Cardinal John Henry Newman, which reads in part:
“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”
I have a friend who insists that she can’t nap. No matter how hard she tries, she says she just can’t relax enough to curl up on the couch, close her eyes and catch a few minutes of shut eye during the day.
I think there’s something seriously wrong with her.
I love taking a nap but I’ve always felt like a lazy slug for lying around in the middle of the afternoon while the rest of the world is slaving away. Then a few years ago, my doctor told me that it’s good to take a nap during the day. Not a big, deep sleep. Just a short, 15 or 20 minute snooze to clear away the cobwebs and recharge your batteries.
As someone who loves taking a nap as much as I like drinking tea, you can be sure I’ve followed her advice as often as I can. In fact, I’m off to take a nap right now.
Today’s lesson? Napping like a dog is a lot better for your life than working like one.
Once upon a time, I thought that the best way to handle a disagreement with someone was to argue my side of the issue. Prove my point. Give the facts. Share my opinion. Make my case.
Over the years, I’ve learned that there is a difference between an intelligent discussion and arguing with idiots. The first leaves you both a bit more enlightened about the other’s views; the latter just leaves you exhausted.
Arguing with people who like to argue only leads to one thing: an argument. And it’s one you can never win, because there are some people who make it their mission in life to argue, regardless of the issue or even if they have an opinion on the issue. They ignore the facts, they disregard the truth, they change their stance in order to continue the argument. They just want to engage in verbal combat, whether it’s politics, religion or the proper way to inflate the tires on your car.
It’s easy to get sucked in, to get frustrated, and to feed the conflict. Instead, I’ve mastered the art of disengaging. I smile, take a deep breath, and walk away. Even when I know I’m right. Even when I have the facts on my side. Even if walking away means I may look weak for not making my case.
Because I’ve learned this important truth: in the end, the idiot will always be revealed as the idiot he is, and it’s better not to even be on that stage when the curtain rises.
(This column originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Refreshed Magazine.)
By the time you read this column, I’ll have reached one of life’s many milestones: the 20th anniversary of my 30th birthday.
Or, to be more specific, I turn 350 in dog years.
I’d love to share some words of wisdom about turning 49+1, but publishing deadlines being what they are, as I sit down to write this column I’m still a few weeks shy of the actual Big Day. All I have as a prediction of the coming decade is my past experience. My 40s were significantly better than my 30s, which were much better than my 20s. Each decade has brought with it increasing wisdom and maturity, allowing me to both apologize to and forgive myself for the previous decade.
If that trend continues, I’ll be eligible for membership in Mensa. Or sainthood.
Since I have nothing to offer yet on what it means to join the Over The Hill Gang, I turned to my friend Lynda for some thoughts on what to expect. Her birthday was just a few days ago, so the big event is still fresh in her mind. She had a weekend-long celebration that included a night out with the girls, dinner with family, and a lot of pictures on Facebook showing that she’s barely aged since high school.
When I asked her how it felt to turn 10×5, she mused about a little arthritis in her knees, along with the requisite hot flashes and slightly higher blood pressure. You know, the things people tell me that “women your age” deal with, along with resistant gray hair, memory loss, and those few extra pounds that won’t go away no matter how much you diet or exercise.
Fair warning. The next person who says “women your age” to me will find out that women my age can still give you black eye.
But back to Lynda. She isn’t letting a milestone birthday get her down. She has a lot to celebrate this year. She and her husband will be married for 25 years. Their daughter turns 21 and their son starts high school. “I have a job I love, which I work part time, so low stress,” she told me by email. “Two great kids, an awesome husband, a lovable dog, a roof over our heads, living in San Diego, and just came back from the beach, where my son’s swim team was taking their team photos.”
With characteristic optimism, she added, “We survived the millennium, so it’s all bonus years from here on out!”
Maybe she’s so upbeat because the birthday cake sugar hasn’t cleared her system yet, or she’s high on all of that California sun and surf so absent here in Western New York, where I live and write (and shovel snow in May). I needed feedback from someone in my own climate.
My friend Lisa celebrated The Big One last December, during a blizzard. There was a surprise party, although she didn’t feel much like celebrating. And it wasn’t just the weather. “I’m not where I thought I’d be at this point in my life,” she admitted over lunch recently. I understand what she means. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, while people I went to high school with are retiring from jobs they’ve held for 25 or 30 years.
Mickey has a few years on me and Lisa, and she added this perspective: “When I do realize how old I’ll be it amazes me. I’m not where I thought I’d be but it’s been a pretty good trip to where I am.”
That explains Yvonne’s thoughts. She said that as they years have passed, “I gained confidence. I gained experience. I gained knowledge. I gained self-esteem.” This birthday is when she bloomed. “I moved forward and I’ve never looked back.”
Sounds like the key to aging is to enjoy the journey and not focus on the destination. Good. That means I can throw away all of those mailers from the cemetery offering to help me preplan my funeral.
Today turns into tomorrow, this year turns into the next, and life keeps happening, regardless of how many candles are on your birthday cake. While I haven’t made a big deal about my impending leap into old age, it would be nice if everyone else stopped counting. Yesterday the mailman delivered my membership application for AARP.
That led to maybe the best feedback I’ve gotten so far about turning … gulp … 50: “Enjoy it,” said my Aunt Mary Ellen. “You’ll never be any younger.”
I heard a happy statistic a few weeks ago that while sales of adult ebook sales were up 4.8% through August of 2013 to $647.7 million, sales of hardcover books over the same period were up 11.5% to $778.6 million over the same period.
I’m not a fan of ebooks. I like real books. I like smelling the paper and reading at the beach. I like pulling out a book I read years ago and finding pencil marks in the margins and fingerprints on the pages. I just can’t seem to fall in love with an electronic device; there’s romance in books. My whole life – 50 years now – I’ve been reading books, and lots of them.
Surprise: I’m not a fan of technology.
In fact, when people assure me that this or that technological advance is going to eliminate something – like ebooks putting bookstores out of business and making paper book printing obsolete – I only laugh.
I’m 50 years old now, people. I know a thing or two about technology and life.
Back in the 80s I was The World’s Worst Bank Teller. This was before I went on to become The World’s Worst Promotions Specialist, The World’s Worst Small Business Owner, The World’s Worst Mother, and The World’s Worst Veterinary Office Receptionist (just to name a few of my career choices).
It was also, believe it or not, before ATMs were as prevalent as they are today.
The Automated Teller Machine was developed in the 1960s and started being used around the world in the 1970s. But it was in the late 1980s, when I was a teller, that the push was really on to replace actual bank tellers with machines.
I remember each of us taking turns standing in the lobby, offering to help customers make deposits and withdrawals using this high tech cash dispenser. There was a learning curve, but before long people were bypassing the long lines to conduct simple transactions, like getting cash or depositing their paycheck.
The future, the financial prognosticators spoke with certainty, would soon find people doing all of their banking by machine. Human tellers and employees, we were assured, would become a thing of the past, or at the most relegated to a few select hours of branch availability a week to accept mortgage applications, process loan papers and make sure the machines were working.
I left banking only after a few years – it was gently suggested I find a career path that didn’t involve adding numbers – but I never forgot those dire predictions. Because, as it turns out, they were wrong. In fact, quite the opposite happened.
While ATM use is daily use for most Americans, banking didn’t go completely “humanless”. Banks actually found people using their services more. They kept or extended office hours. They relegated the mundane tasks of depositing and withdrawing to the money machines, but found other ways to connect with their customers, in person, in the office, on the phone, and online.
Human bank tellers and other employees didn’t go away after all.
It was the same dire prediction when the Video Cassette Recorder debuted for mass consumer use. The motion picture industry predicted doom as consumers took their viewing choices to their homes. No one would ever go to the movies again, they wailed. Speaking before Congressional hearings in 1982, then Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti said, “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”
In other words, death to the movies.
But instead, there was a rise in people going to the movie theater. Hollywood produced more movies. In 1985, there were 470 movies released with a gross box office of about $3.7 million dollars. In 2013, there were 686 movies released, with a gross box office of about $10.9 million. Add in DVD sales, Netflix and other streaming sites and the reality is that the motion picture industry benefitted from this new technology.
Trivia sidebar: The #1 movie at the box office in 1985? “Back To The Future”. In 2013? “Catching Fire”. Interesting, isn’t it, how our views on the future have gone from rosy technology to post-apocalyptic doom? But I digress.
Yes, technology makes things easier, but it never replaces humans. It might change the way we interact with each other, but in the end, people like people. They like doing their banking with a human. They like going to a theater with other people to share a theatrical experience.
And they like books. And bookstores. While big chain stores are struggling and going under, there’s a backlash rise in independent stores. The indie bookseller has adapted to the marketplace, and small stores have become havens for book lovers, complete with cafes, gift shops and other things that draw those of us who love a good mystery, a cozy chair and a cat wandering amongst the stacks of hardcovers and paperbacks.
Technology changes the world, but we adapt with it to maintain our personal connections.
My prediction? With the rise in social media and the electronic clutter that overwhelms us on a daily basis, we’ll start sending each other letters and cards again. You know, get out a pen and a piece of paper and write a letter. Put a stamp on it. Give it to the mailman. Go to the mailbox and take out envelopes and open them up and think, “How nice! Aunt Gloria sent me birthday card!” Check back with me on my 100th birthday and see if I was right.
Here’s the thing about money that I’ve learned over the years: you can live with a lot less of it than you think you can, if you learn the difference between a want and a need.
A need is something you’ll die without – or at least be unhealthy without. A roof over your head, or at least adequate shelter. Food, and I mean real food, not convenience food or food-like substances. Medical treatment, and that includes preventing illness as much as treating it.
Don’t get caught up in the myth that you can have everything your heart desires and pay for it later. Buy a house you can afford, not one that’ll impress your family, friends and coworkers. So the kids have to share a bedroom; generations of Americans grew up sharing space and were better for it. Drive a car that gets you where you need to get, even if it’s not new, cool, or can double as your mobile “sanctuary.”
If you don’t have the money to pay for it, then don’t buy it. And just because it’s a good deal, doesn’t mean you have to take advantage of it. An elephant for a dime is only a deal if you have a dime – and you need an elephant.
It’s a lesson that took me decades to learn, but once I did? Life got a lot less complicated and I was a lot more satisfied.
Well, folks, last Friday was the big day, the day I reached the top of the hill and started my slow decline down the other side.
Yup. I turned 50.
If I’m being honest, I haven’t had a single qualm about turning 50, although joking about it makes for some good column material. Each decade gets a little easier, and I feel a little more comfortable in my own skin.
For my birthday, darling husband and I spent the day at the Seneca Park Zoo and then went out to dinner with family. It was low key, relaxing and perfect.
In fact, as you can see from the photo, darling husband and I had a little fun at the zoo – you know, goofing around the way you can when you don’t care what anyone else thinks.
Which of course is one of the best things about growing older – feeling young without the maladjustment and near idiocy of youth. So here’s to being 50!
It’s midnight and I’m lying in bed, reading a book, when all of the sudden I hear the pitter patter of little feet scurrying in the ceiling above my head.
Dammit. There’s something in the attic.
Bandit sits up and cocks his head to listen, then jumps down from the bed to follow the sound around the room, eyes fixed on the ceiling.
Great. It sounds like maybe two somethings.
I call to my husband, “David! Something’s in the attic!!”
He’s just gotten home from a long day at work, just taken a shower, and isn’t interested in whatever phantom noise I’m panicked about. Spring usually brings a procession of bugs and spiders and weirdo beetles I’m always calling for him to kill. No emergency, he thinks. I wait. The scurrying continues.
“There’s something in the attic!” I call.
When darling husband comes into the room, he cocks his head to listen, wearing that “there’s nothing there” impatient frown … and then he hears it too.