Lyrical Laughs

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Welcome to Don’t Tell Me What Kind of Day to Have

I am a friendly person. I talk with others in the checkout line in stores (which never failed to make my kids cringe), and I thank whoever bags my groceries (after I ask them to please not put all the cans in one bag). Because this is how I tend to be in public, I do appreciate when a cashier or clerk is personable.

However, I have a bone to pick with store managers.

Stop trying to make your personnel sound like a Hallmark greeting card.

I can not be the only one who has noticed recently that retail store employees, particularly department stores and pharmacies, are being forced to recite the same thing to every person who walks in or out of the place.

Whoever is stationed in front is now designated to call out “Welcome to Swifty Shop” before you’re even through the automated doors.

Then there’s the poor sap at the cash register who, after listening to the customer grumble about prices, write a check for the wrong amount, and ask if the tags have to be on the item in order to return it (because, you know – wearing something to a party with tags on is just tacky), has to say (in a sincere voice), “Thank you for shopping at Uber Low Prices, please come again.”

Stop. It.

Let your employees do it their way. Now, I don’t mean just let them say whatever they want to say to clientele, because we all know that could open up a whole can of worms (not to mention a lawsuit in some cases). I’m just saying I would rather have someone simply say hello when I walk into a store without feeling like they are force-feeding the name of the business. Chances are that I know where I am. Fine, there are times when I don’t know where I am or how I got there, but in general I do.

When I’m leaving your establishment, if the cashier wants to compliment my purse or whisper that I have a piece of spinach stuck between my teeth, I would prefer this over a mechanical monologue about being so thankful for my business, yada yada.

It’s all right to bring out the best in your staff. Just do so without sapping their mental strength by measuring their performance with how well they greet customers or shove them out the door.  Let it be real. Not real enough to warrant an arrest because said employee told a customer just what they could do with that umbrella they wanted a discount on, since it isn’t the rainy season and they are doing you a favor by clearing out unwanted merchandise. I mean real enough where that person can have at least some personal investment in their words.

Help your employees to shine without auditioning them for a part in a Nickelodeon series. That’s all I’m saying.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. Have a nice day. Seriously. I mean it!

2014 © Janine V. Talbot

Saturday, April 19, 2014

When tact is the first thing to go

A week ago today I was about to sit down for my final dinner with 300+ writers in various phases of their careers or aspirations. It was the final day of a camaraderie that began the moment I had arrived at the Dayton Marriott Wednesday evening to the sound of laughter and clinking glass emerging from the hotel restaurant.

There was so much to learn at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop that I tried to take copious notes.  It was like a perpetual classroom of those friends you secretly hoped you would wind up in detention with. These were my people and I felt so comfortable around them that I made a conscious effort to sit with different individuals at meals, so that I could have a chance to get to know at least something about as many of them as possible.

So how do I wrap up a review of three spectacular days? I think about stupid stuff I did, of course.

For example:

The workshop where I started to raise my hand during a session, not because I had a question, but because the woman one row ahead and three seats to the left had raised her hand twice and didn’t get called on. Admittedly, I hadn’t thought this one through… what was I going to do – say, “She raised her hand,” like we were in grammar school? Fortunately, she did get to ask her question before I had the chance to find out just how I’d muddle through that one. I could not have slunk down in my seat low enough, I’m pretty sure.

And that time I jumped out of a photo op because I mistakenly assumed everyone else sitting around the table was part of the Not Your Mother’s Book anthology staff, only to find out I was wrong - after the photo had been taken. When I spotted that picture among the collection in Facebook later on, I could point out exactly where I had been sitting. Sigh.

And then there was that moment that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, when I held up a book by another author and asked well-known author, humorist, and feminist scholar Gina Barreca if that other guy was going to be at the workshop.

I sense that you are shaking your head in embarrassment for me. You should, because being new at writers’ workshops, not to mention - you know, the whole logical thinking thing – my first thought at seeing Ms. Barreca seated behind the cash register in a room full of books was: Oh that’s interesting… the presenters must help out in different areas of the workshop. So what would that mean -- Lisa Scottoline is on dishes after lunch??

Yeah. I was that person.

In the end I had to ask myself, what did I take away from this workshop that might help me to put behind those uncomfortable situations, which I somehow managed (and not just last week – it’s a common occurrence) to precipitate?

It’s more about what I didn’t take away.

I didn’t leave with uncertainty. From that first night of introductions to the last morning of a taxi ride to the airport with a talented writer who happily shared her experience writing for the Not Your Mother’s Book anthologies, I was enveloped in a cocoon of like minds, and it was exactly where I wanted to be: with people who simply write life.

I didn’t go back to my room each night feeling like I didn’t belong, and that everyone could write better than me. I did find quickly that we all process and write differently, and for that we should all be grateful. Imagine if everyone said exactly the same thing? There was a freedom in the constant reminder that, by writing what we know, we give voice, flavor, and ultimately our personal touch to the story. It is ours to own.

I didn’t come home alone. I came home with half a box of other writers’ business cards and a list of everyone who participated, courtesy of the fantastic workshop coordinators. I also came home with confidence, drive, goals, and hope. I came home writing, and I haven’t stopped.

I didn’t carry with me a fear of approaching someone like Phil Donahue (or the person with bunny slippers who coaxed Phil Donahue into trying them on) to tell him that my mom and I are big fans and miss him on television (because, you know, he’s never heard that before). I wasn’t shy about telling very, very funny lady Leighann Lord that her dad/daughter story had me in stitches because of a similar incident at our house. And even though my throat felt like I had swallowed a rock when I tried to talk, having a few minutes with “that girl” from Newtown, CT was like opening a gift (having my picture with Leighann photo-bombed by her later on was priceless, and it also gave witness to the magic of those three days).

I didn’t take fear along for the ride because it wasn’t allowed in this place. This was a place to speak and laugh and cry and be genuine. And everyone I came in contact was thoroughly genuine.

There is more to my story about Gina Barreca.

After attending a tremendously inspiring workshop she shared with Suzanne Braun Levine, Ilene Beckerman, and moderator Patricia Wynn Brown, I approached her and fumbled my way through what must have sounded like an insane explanation for my stupid question the night before. She was not only sweet about it, she also didn’t seem phased by it, which gave me hope that mine was not the most pathetic excuse for idiocy she had ever heard. Just nod your head.

Later that evening at a book signing Gina (oh yes, we’re buddies now – says me) signed my copy of her book, hugged me and said, “You’re a sweetheart.” I will admit to silently praying this wasn’t code for “you scare me” or “schmuck”… something along those lines. But this gracious lady looked me in the eye, and her smile was sincere, and I walked away glowing.

As a final note about how our differences in writing style didn’t matter one lick during the workshop, here are the words I wrote down during Dan Zevin’s “write down five words you think are funny” exercise.


Not even close to what anyone else had, I imagine. I don’t know what that means, but I felt terrible for the poor person I handed those words to. Even though I had my reasons for thinking they were funny (in a slightly skewed way, I’m afraid), I knew she wouldn’t be raising her hand any time soon to rattle them off in a sentence.

Still, given the same question again, I would have at least one of those words on my list. It would probably be verklempt, so I will use it in a sentence.

I get verklempt thinking about those 719 days until the next Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Twas the Night Before Erma

This morning I was sitting at an airport terminal in Portland, Maine, listening to snippets of conversation between other passengers, occasional announcements over the loudspeaker (in particular about the delay of my flight), and a crying cat that would be boarding the same plane. I love cats. I just hoped to not be sitting anywhere near this one unless it's "Mommy" planned to give it a healthy dose of something like Benadryl or bourbon before boarding.

I have been writing since grammar school (and you know it must be a long time because nobody says "grammar school" anymore), but this week is about something so new for me that it doesn't even have a category in my compartmentalized brain. The Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop in Dayton Ohio.

This is me taking the biggest chance I've ever taken. This is me beyond excited to be with people running workshops who not only think like me and write like me - they live in the writing world.

Where I want to live.

These next few days will bring together the work, the dreams and the possibilities of those who live ordinary lives, who have celebrated, contemplated and mourned, and who have written about it all - weaving the most uneventful day in their lives into our world. And maybe for you, reading the story of that uneventful day turned into the moment you laughed. Or cried. Or remembered. Somehow it touched you.

Those are the people I am here to meet. And in the words of that very wise professor who encouraged Erma to pursue her writing, so simply put, they can write.

Since registering for this workshop for some reason I've developed a newfound confidence. I am confident that I will have something in common with the people I surround myself with during this workshop. I am confident that I can touch people with words. I am confident that I will be coming home equipped to push myself to the next thing - the next blog post, the next article, the next goal.

I am no spring chicken, there isn't another 50 years left on my agenda to hone my craft. Even so, that's no excuse not to keep growing and gleaning from others who offer, as the speakers this week have. There will be questions, and many of them will come from me. Ask my youngest about our college visits - she will tell you that by the end of the tours I was probably able to lead the next group. Questions are wonderful things. They lead to more information and maybe a great conversation. Never be afraid to ask questions, even if you are the only one left in the room.

After an insane delay in Newark I finally wrapped up the last leg of my flight to Dayton. Even after sitting on the tarmac for two hours waiting our turn to take off, I had to laugh... I had been gazing longingly at IKEA which was in clear sight from my window on what was beginning to feel like a refrigerated metal tube. By my calculations I could have walked the approximate half mile to the store, purchased an item, brought it back to the plane, and we all could have put it together before taking off. I should also mention the pigeon hanging around inside the United terminal before boarding, pecking his way through remnants of crumbs on the carpeted floor of the United Airlines waiting area, because that was just plain weird.

After finally reaching my hotel, I spent the past hour or so in the hotel restaurant already meeting new friends, collecting funny business cards, and swapping stories. It was a taste - a teaser of what's to come over the next few days, and I am so ready to be completely immersed in this opportunity.

The best part of this week is that we are all cheering each other on, happy to acknowledge other writers' pieces without competition. The ironic part is that the inspiring gift of this workshop is in memory of the late Erma Bombeck. As I sit here in this hotel room after already laughing about the antics of my fellow writers on our first introduction, there is no doubt in my mind.

Erma, you are right on time.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Born to be Tired (or Meet me at the 'Breakfast' Bar)

At this time next week I will be in the middle of living a dream of mine that I didn't know I even had until last December. I will be attending the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop in Dayton, Ohio. It wasn't until I Googled "I want to be Erma Bombeck" a few months ago that I even discovered such a thing. True story, which you can read about here. I can't even express how exciting this new adventure will be, to learn from some fantastic speakers and to associate with my peers, my people, those who 'get' my writing and express themselves in much the same way. There is one fear I have, however - one confession I should make before I step onto that plane and traipse across a third of the country to be in this strange land of humor and mockery of life.

I might sleep through some of the funniest stuff.

This is not due to my lack of interest, or because I won't be able to wake up in the morning in time for the sessions. It is because "late night" to me is 10 p.m. So I'm watching all these wonderfully witty writers saying "meet me at the bar" at the end of the day for the kind of camaraderie that only happens with off-the-cuff remarks and solidarity in sarcasm. I don't want to miss a thing. But my body seems to have a curfew that forces me to find a corner with a pillow long before the bar closes. In fact, sometimes before the band starts, which is ironic considering I once sang in a band and was out until the wee hours of the morning. Trust me, even then the idea of getting dressed up and applying a heavy coat of makeup due to the lighting was not my favorite thing. There were times I was tempted to have my pajamas with me as a change of clothing after the show... possibly during an intermission.

The point is, I am simply not a night owl. Now, tell me to meet you at 7 a.m. for a walk to Starbucks - I'm your woman. Ask me if I'd be willing to hit the road by 5 a.m. for a long-distance drive in order to be somewhere in the morning, I am on board and very happy to greet the sunrise on the journey - kind of the opposite of that famous "driving into the sunset" theme we hear so often.

So will I be missing anything next week if I am slipping away into the welcoming arms of my hotel bed after willing myself to hang around until possibly 11 p.m. just to catch whatever snippets of hysterically inappropriate conversation I can? Probably. But I have to believe that when I am walking through the hotel lobby that first morning at 7:30 or 8, with hours to go before registration and sessions, I will find a kindred spirit or two who will walk with me, talk with me, and share that almost spiritual connection we have.

Knowing we were all asleep before the 11 o'clock news.