MERRY BELATED CHRISTMAS!

To celebrate my (hard-won eventual) success at learning to use Block Editor, I thought I’d share my Christmas letter with all my WP peeps, a summary of the ups and downs that contributed to my hiatus. If you already received a paper copy via snail mail, you are not obligated to read it again.

THE HARRIS CHRISTMAS CHRONICLE 2021 EDITION

Christmas is fast approaching, family and friends, and the drawing at the top of this letter pretty accurately sums up our year.  Think of those spinning plates as physical, mental, and dental health, caretaking of husband, pets, and other family members, keeping our hundred-year-old house and aging cars in working order, doing Zooms and coffee dates, adjusting to new technology (computer and Bluetooth hearing aids), getting vaccinated for COVID, figuring out what to make with the oodles of bell peppers arriving weekly in our summer farm share, submitting poems and filing rejection letters, while doing the things that normal people do—wondering if eating potato salad at a family picnic is a bad idea, getting blisters from wearing new sneakers to Cedar Point, hoping my use of the word “sneakers” doesn’t brand me as old, enduring haircuts at Great Clips from stylists who graduated beauty school last month, sitting outside wearing two jackets and gloves to pass out trick-or-treats to ten kids wearing winter coats under their costumes, and pondering the mysteries of life, like why I think Callie is tan and Peaches is orange when, in fact, my dog and cat are the same color.  

Age eventually catches up with all of us.  In April, after years of relative peace with his diagnoses, Brian had to be hospitalized for a mental breakdown.  In their zeal to get to the bottom of things, the doctors ran a lot of tests.  These unearthed low thyroid and Vitamin D, mild sleep apnea, and pre-diabetes.  One day, he took no daily meds—the next, he was filling the biggest Pill Minder on the market.  His vision became blurry.  Stronger reading glasses helped with small print, but I still do most of the driving.  Ten hopelessly decayed teeth were extracted.  By comparison, my health problems—worsening hearing loss, a persistent sinus infection, and weekly chiropractic adjustments and allergy shots—seemed almost trivial.  When our 11-year-old dog Tailor fell ill, therapy was my salvation.  At each session, I poured out another chapter in the unfolding story.  How the vet examined his lame leg, said he had torn his ACL, and referred him for surgery.  How by the day of his Ortho appointment, he had lost 13 pounds.  How x-rays showed an intact ACL, but also a shadowy mass in his pelvis that turned out to be colon cancer.  How he went to the Rainbow Bridge on June 21, the first day of summer.  He is survived by his heartbroken dog parents and two tan (or orange?) fur-siblings, co-Alphas in the new household order.  A few weeks into autumn, my invincible mom fell and broke her leg, just below the hip joint.  On the fourth of October, my surgeon gave to me…   four Oxycontin, three rods and pins, two weeks of rehab, and a walker with tennis ball feet!!  She is currently convalescing at my sister Judy’s house, doing physical therapy and outrageously difficult jigsaw puzzles.   

Between appointments, we coped with smaller crises, like a burned-out attic fan, a sink with a hairball, and a relentless supply of farm share vegetables.  I used my stimulus check to have a crown replaced.  A week later, my aging computer, whose touch-screen had been overly touchy for months, conked out.  I drove to Best Buy on the hottest day of summer and plunked down $1500 for a shiny Dell laptop.  On the way home, the AC in my Honda breathed its last.  For a minute there, I questioned the Lord’s judgment regarding how much I could handle.

In times of doubt, it’s helpful to count your blessings.  Like having an attic, access to farm-fresh produce, and hundreds of gratis government dollars to spend on things you need.  Readily available COVID vaccines with nothing but minor arm soreness afterward.  An end to wiping down groceries with Clorox towelettes.  The safe return of our nephew Chris from his overseas AF assignment followed by a blow-out homecoming party in the park.  The safe return of Brian’s lost cell phone…  Twice.  Strolls along the Cedar Point midway.  Julie’s summer visit, including outings to the Carousel Museum and Toft’s Dairy.  Sharon’s birthday visit, a whirlwind of autumn leaves, food truck gyros, and tea cart conversations.  A new Ohio driver’s license that doesn’t expire for eight years!  Finding Christmas gifts in this, the Year of the Back Order.

As for what I’m writing?  You’re looking at it.  I submitted a few pre-pandemic pieces to the local 44839 contest and, at a live reading in September, was awarded first prize for my poem People of Greyhound.  A month later, a fellow poet who attended the event brought me a Greyhound badge he’d come to possess when his friend, a career driver, passed away.  It resides in my Special Box, a tangible reminder of the connections I’ve made through my writing.  An unexpected email from Team Erma (Bombeck) had me LITERALLY jumping up and down.  It said 2020 essay winners had been granted free admission to their 2022 conference.  Did I want to attend in-person or virtually?  That morsel of good news put me back in the black in the Giant Ledger in the Sky, but doing the Happy Dance caused me to pull a muscle and smell like Ben Gay for the rest of the day.  Please don’t say that’s the “new normal” at my age; I’ve really come to hate that expression.

Phrases like “new normal” are eye-rollers in my book.  Whatever this is, it ain’t normal.  That’s exactly what Jesus must have thought when he woke up in a manger on Christmas morning.  Just when he got used to swaddling clothes, warm milk, and naps, he had to flee to Egypt and live on the lam, then move to Nazareth, learn to be a carpenter, turn water into wine, feed a crowd with provisions from his disciples’ knapsacks, and finally, die nailed to a cross.  Makes spinning those plates seem like child’s play, doesn’t it?  Maybe I’ll up the ante and try it with my Christmas china!  Just kidding!!

May the Ringmaster watch over your circus, at Christmastime and always.                     

Love, Joan, Brian, Callie, and Peaches

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY

The deadline for entries to the 2022 Erma Bombeck Humor Essay Contest was yesterday. They’ll accept only one essay per person, so I had to choose between two of my favorite pandemic-related pieces. Below is the one I didn’t submit:

PICK-UP LINES

How do I love our hometown grocery?  Let me count the ways!  Local produce.  Freshly roasted coffee beans.  Housemade tortilla chips.  Twenty-piece buckets of fried chicken for $11.99.  Real, live cashiers.  Paper bags.  It has only two drawbacks.  One is the international aisle, sponsored by La Choy and Old El Paso, which lacks key ingredients for every ethnic recipe I’ve ever clipped from the New York Times.  Ask the stock boy where to find umami paste and he’ll say, “Um… on Amazon?”  The other is having to dodge horny widowers who think “Senior Hour” means “Tinder for the Elderly.”

A few days before Halloween, I pop in first thing in the morning to grab some necessities.  I’ve forgotten 7-8 am is Senior Hour.  I’m not technically old enough to shop then, but I quit coloring my hair years ago, so no one is the wiser.     

In canned goods, a player in a buttoned-up cardigan pushes a cart with a marked-down grapefruit in the front that is already attracting fruit flies.  “Excuse me, pretty lady,” he winks.  “Are these the beans that are on sale?”  He points to a tall pyramid of store-brand baked beans next to a fluorescent yellow sign that reads SALE—59¢.  I nod and watch him load eight, ten, twelve cans into his cart.  He clears his throat as if to continue the conversation and I skedaddle, as would any sensible woman who finds herself too close to a cheapskate who might spontaneously combust.

In the snack aisle, I’m approached by a casanova with bird legs and a low-hanging belly not fully covered by his shirt.  He appears to be cheating on Lorna Doone.  With Little Debbie.  He leans in close and stage-whispers, “Are you gonna eat all that candy corn by yourself?”

Two more are prowling in Frozen Foods.  The one wearing a flannel shirt has a stack of Hungry Man fried chicken dinners in his basket and says, for no apparent reason, “I’m a breast man.”  Not to be outdone, the other one squints through his bifocals in the direction of my cart and says, “I sure would like to get a closer look at those pot pies.” 

Me and my pot pies sprint to the end of the aisle and squeal around the corner so fast we almost bump into the stock boy, who’s arranging tortilla chips and jars of salsa on an endcap. 

“Hey, ma’am!” he says brightly.  “Did you ever find that tsunami paste you were looking for?”

I can’t tell if he’s clueless or a comedian-in-training, but it’s the best line I’ve heard all day.  Hey, I might even share my candy corn. 

EATING AN ELEPHANT

It’s natural to feel hopeless when you are surrounded by inequality, political corruption and unrest, and economic uncertainty, not to mention slow-but-sure destruction of the planet from pollution and global warming.  A fav self-help book offers this advice: “Don’t let all the things you can’t do stop you from doing the things you can do.”

Recycling is one small thing I can do, but commercial recyclers tend to be picky about what they will take (#1 and #2 plastics that are bottle-shaped).  Reusable shopping bags were my go-to until COVID-19 hit.  Many stores don’t offer paper, and I end up with more throwaway plastic bags than I could ever reuse.  In response to push-back from environmentalists, some chains have initiated take-backs.  The Kroger near us expanded their program to include all sorts of flimsy plastics.  Clean, dry items can be dropped in a dedicated container in their lobby to be recycled into composite decking and lumber.  It took time to train myself to check their list and not just toss bags and wraps and packing materials willy-nilly into the trash.  I saved up my plastics for six months before I dropped them off, and I was astounded to discover that my cache filled three 39-gallon lawn and leaf bags!  Yikes!

PLASTICS THEY’LL TAKE
(sing to the tune of My Favorite Things)

Bags from my shopping and bread and dry cleaning
Bags made for boiling and microwave steaming
Liners from Cheerios and Frosted Flakes
These are some plastics reclaimers will take

Overwrap binding those by-the-case bargains
Ice Mountain water and Bounty and Charmin
Wraps on cheese singles, between minute-steaks
These are some plastics reclaimers will take

Air-pillow packing and bubble-wrap mailers
Ziplocs and food wrap and sleeves from newspapers
Film from Hot pockets and Hostess cupcakes
These are some plastics reclaimers will take

Now that I know,
it will all go
to the Kroger store
to be hauled away,
then compressed and remade
into plastic 2 x 4’s

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FOUND POEM

This season, I was gratified to discover a few Millenials embracing an old-fashioned tradition, writing and mailing out Christmas letters.  My nephew Sam, an aspiring artist and musician who toiled at Walgreens by day and performed at open mikes by night before COVID interrupted his life, did a phenomenal job with his letter, closing with his “playlist” for 2020:   

Will You Miss Me When I Burn?  (Palace Brothers)

Say Valley Maker (Smog )

Out of Tune (Real Estate Band)

Jubilee Street (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds)

Helplessness Blues (Fleet Foxes)

Sister (Angel Olsen)

Weyes Blood – Bad Magic (Mexican Summer)

It Seemed the Better Way (Leonard Cohen)

Shelter From The Storm (Bob Dylan)

Pretty Eyes (Silver Jews)

He sent me a YouTube link, so I spent a morning listening to his picks, trying to imagine the impact of the pandemic on the young… Living alone or with roommates in tiny apartments, going to scary essential jobs or scraping by on unemployment, alienated from friends, dating, and most social venues.  There is some overlap, certainly, but I am 52 and married, introverted, and retired.  I am my own landlord, have my own washer and dryer, and enjoy the company of two dogs and a cat.  I’m content baking cakes and reading the newspaper and assembling jigsaw puzzles. In fact, I may continue living this way after COVID has passed.  52 is quite different from 25.  Immersing myself in his playlist was like journeying to the past in a time machine.  When a particular lyric spoke to me, I jotted it down on an index card.  Strung end-to-end, with a little rearranging, these lyrics became a “found” poem: 

SORTING IT ALL OUT

It is longing that you feel,
to be missed, or to be real.
The world outside is so inconceivable,
often, you barely can speak,
a ten ton catastrophe  
on a 60pound chain.
The one-eyed undertaker,
he blows a futile horn.
At least there’s nothing more
you could really lose, now is there?

You wonder what it was…
You wonder what it meant…
You know we can’t cop to
the frequency of your inner debate
so you learn to take it as it comes.
You fall together, fall apart
with the grace of a corpse   
in a riptide.
Make the best of death 
and love what’s left.

Do you still believe stars
are the headlights of angels
driving from heaven
to save us?

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ERMA BOMBECK VIRTUAL AWARDS CEREMONY

Hello WordPress Friends!

Remember a few months ago when I posted about winning the Erma Bombeck Humor Essay contest?  I got word this week that, due to COVID-19, the awards ceremony is going to be conducted virtually on Thursday, October 8 from 7 – 7:45 pm EST on a site called Crowdcast.  Erma’s daughter, Betsy Bombeck, will give the keynote address and winners (including me) will read their essays.  You have to register at https://www.crowdcast.io/e/erma-bombeck-awards-ceremony if you wish to attend.  You must provide your email address and confirm it by responding to an email they send you.  If you’ve always wondered what JustJoan looks like, now is your chance to find out.  I look forward to seeing all of you in the audience.

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JUST BOPPIN’ ALONG

Last week, my friend Muri introduced me to a poetry form called The Bop.  A Bop consists of three mono-rhymed stanzas.  Each is followed by a single-line refrain.  The first stanza is six lines and presents a problem. The second stanza is eight lines and expands on the problem.  The third stanza is six lines and documents the resolution (or failed attempt/s at resolution).

That said, The Bop is an ideal form to address daily life in 2020.  There are huge problems all around us.  But it’s the pesky little problems that seem to demand most of our attention—dead batteries, overdue books, mosquito bites, etc.  When COVID-19 became a threat, I made it a habit to flush, then wash my hands until the toilet stops running, which takes about 20 seconds.  This approach works well as long as the flapper valve closes properly.  I dread when it doesn’t because I might have to put my hand into the tank.  And even if I don’t, I’ll have to touch something that warrants another 20 seconds of handwashing.

COMMODIUS BOP

I wipe my mucky tush,
toss paper in and flush,
and hear the water rush,
a robust cleansing gush
Down goes all the mush
but trickling, unhushed

whooshes in my ears

I wait a minute more
Quit running, I implore
A hit-the-flush encore
is weaker than before
and still the filler roars
Jig-jiggles are ignored
A loud and clear call for
internal maneuvers

whooshes in my ears

Let the games begin!
With clank of porcelain,
lid lifted, hand plunged in
dodging chains and pins
reseats valve seal again
A sweet but fleeting win

whooshes in my ears

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OH MY GOD! REALLY?

On a cold day in February, as I sat at my desk balancing my checkbook, the phone rang.  I snatched it up.  “Hello??!!”  I’m sure the caller could sense my irritation.  I’ve been told I wear my heart on my vocal cords.

“Good afternoon!” the woman said.  “Is this Joan Harris?”

“Depends.  Who’s calling?”  I was poised to hang up if she launched into a spiel asking if I was the person who handled the family electric bill, or offering me a special cable TV promotion.

“This is Debe Dockins,” she said, “I’m calling from the headquarters of the Erma Bombeck Essay Contest to inform you that you’ve won first prize in the local humor division.”

I was so flabbergasted I almost dropped the phone.  I must have said “Oh my God!  Really?” about fifty-seven times as her congratulations and instructions floated in one ear and out the other.  I’d need to send them a bio and a “head shot.”  I’d need to confirm my address and fill out a tax form so they could send me the prize money.  I’d need to commit to reading my piece at an awards ceremony on April 1st and make hotel reservations for the days of the workshop.  My head was spinning.  She said they would send a confirmatory e-mail, thank the Lord, containing all the details.

After the shock wore off, I opened the email and set about the required tasks.  I was looking forward to being back in Dayton for a spell, reading for an appreciative audience, attending a delectable array of humor writing classes, reconnecting with old neighbors and friends, noshing at our sorely-missed favorite restaurants.  Of course, it all went down the toilet when Coronavirus came to town.  They’re shooting for new dates in October, but truthfully, anything could happen.

Without further ado, here is my prize-winning essay.  I have included a link below so you can read the other winning essays and runners up if you wish.  Pretty stiff competition.

    We need these in the Ladies dressing room!

SWIMSUIT ISSUES

I almost scrapped the idea of joining AquaRobics because it meant buying a swimsuit.  Why do dressing rooms have three-way mirrors that provide a panoramic view of every bulge on your personal landscape?  Wouldn’t it make more financial sense to install funhouse mirrors that stretch corpulent customers into five-foot-ten supermodels?  As it happens, I was able to bypass the cellulite confessional because, according to the retail calendar, summer is the off-season for swim-suits.  In January, they’re plentiful as flies in an outhouse but in July, you must shop online or make do with a Wonder Woman Halloween costume.

Catalog dot.coms offer hundreds of swimsuits modeled by lanky teenagers.  You wade and click, wade and click, comparing features and trying to imagine what the suit would look like on an older, flabbier person.  They need to create a Midlife section where you can narrow your search by figure flaw, like Jelly Belly or Butt Requiring its own ZIP Code.  Or by remedy, such as Compress it with a Spandex Panel, Hide it Under a Skirt, or Draw Attention from it by Using Bright Colors on the Opposite Half of the Suit.

I ordered a navy swim dress with tiny white polka-dots.  It skimmed over my figure flaws as promised and seemed quite perfect, until I got in the water.  Submerged, the skirt had a mind of its own.  It floated at armpit level, twisting and tangling.  Doing AquaRobics was like wrestling with an umbrella in a monsoon.  After class, the sodden skirt sagged to my ankles, having somehow grown three feet while I was in the pool.  So I exchanged the swim dress for a color block tank designed to divert attention from my behind, a goal it achieved each time a shoulder strap abandoned its post and allowed a breast to escape.  I traded in the tank for a 97% Spandex racer-back suit.  The top is snug as a mammogram machine and the material in the tummy control panel could be used for building levees.  It performed commendably in the water – no tangles, sags, or peek-a-boobs.

“How’s the new suit working out?” a classmate asked.

“This one’s a keeper,” I replied.  When I hit the showers a few minutes later, I realized truer words had never been spoken.  My body heat had vacuum-sealed the wet Spandex to my torso and although the wide, X-shaped straps had gone on with ease, their removal would have flummoxed Houdini himself.  After ten minutes of contortions and tug-of-war, I heard a loud pop and the swimsuit surrendered.

The bad news?  I’ll have to buy a new suit.  The good news?  By the time I finish therapy for my dislocated shoulder, they’ll be back in season.

ERMA BOMBECK ESSAY CONTEST WINNERS

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SHIT STORM SESTINA

The sestina is a complicated poetry form, one that gives my bud Muri hives.  I don’t blame her.  A sestina has six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoi.  The same six words are the end words of the lines in each stanza, but they appear in a different order each time, as set forth by the rules of the form.  They show up in a prescribed order in the envoi as well.  I wrote my first sestina during a poetry workshop.  The words (witch, field, guide, fire, violet, and shit-storm) were contributed by the students in the class.  How does a person use “shit-storm” seven times in one poem?  You’re about to find out.  That workshop was five years ago.  I’ve kept in touch with the instructor, Dr. Woodward Martin, and recently had the pleasure of hearing him read at a Zoom poetry event.

MEDICS IN TRAINING  

Instructing new recruits was a sergeant everyone called The Witch.
She was ill-tempered but would teach us how to survive in the field.
She handed each of us a spiral-bound combat readiness guide.
Being prepared would prevent unfortunate trials by fire.
For instance, CPR was best learned BEFORE your buddy turned violet
and you found yourself in the middle of a shit-storm.

And eventually it was going to happen, the shit-storm.
It was inevitable in the world of combat, said The Witch.
I may have begun hyperventilating, my fingers were turning violet.
She pointed this out, asked what remedy we’d use in the field.
Every pair of eyes looked down, flipping through pages rapid-fire,
searching for redemption in the little spiral-bound guide

Breathing into a paper bag will help, advised the guide.
Rebreathing CO2 should calm the anxious and dizzy shit-storm.
Commit it to memory, she said, many hyperventilate under fire,
and if you don’t have a paper bag, any kind will do.  The Witch
reminded us that medical supplies are often lacking in the field.
One has to make do when fingers begin to tingle and turn violet.

I had never before thought of it as an ugly color, violet,
but it usually meant something ominous, according to the guide.
Not like the pretty patches of wildflowers that dotted our field,
but mottling and cyanosis and bruises and dead tissue, a shit-storm
of potentially life-threatening ailments.  Just as The Witch
opened her mouth to speak, an alarm rang out – Fire!  Fire!  Fire!

We made an orderly exit and stood watching as the fire
trucks pulled up, sirens screaming, to investigate the gray-violet
smoke rising from the building.  We realized The Witch
had begun to hyperventilate.  No one needed to consult the guide.
Armed with our new knowledge, we were ready for the shit-storm.
A recruit pulled a paper lunch bag from the pocket of his field

jacket, delighted that he was properly equipped to field
the emergency.  He had her breathe into the bag as the fire
raged on, the flames consuming the roof and sending a shit storm
of ashes swirling through the air.  He took her arm to guide
her to a bench, where normal color returned to her once-violet
fingertips.  Once she recovered her composure, The Witch

seemed not so much a witch as a human like us, a field
medic and leader and guide.  I heard she married one of the fire-
men, named her daughter Violet, and still loves a good shit storm.

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